what I want you to know: if I were a poor black kid

Today’s guest post is a bit of a departure for this series in that it is a cross-post response to a Forbes.com article from last week.  In case you missed it, Forbes published an article in which a middle-aged white man offers patronizing advice to “poor black kids” about how they could be successful if they would only use the right tech tools.

The Forbes piece really got me ranty, and I think in part because the racism in the article was so subtle.  In my opinion it was racism masquerading as helpful advice.  Helpful advice that basically insinuated that impoverished black youth should just go out and buy a laptop, apply to and attend a better magnet school, and “be smart enough to go for it”.  The author seems to have no regard for the actual problems faced by inner-city youth.

But one of the biggest clues to the underlying racism of this article: poor black kids are not reading Forbes.  So what is the author’s real intention behind this piece? Is he hoping to aid black youth, or is this article merely a manifesto from one rich white guy to another on why we don’t need to give a crap if black youth are underperforming in school?  This is the kind of stealth racism that I find most disturbing today. 

The Forbes piece garnered a lot of outrage on twitter (and spawned the hilarious #ifIwereapoorblackkid hashtag), and some thoughtful responses as well.  I especially appreciated this thoughtful response from Liz Dwyer (and also enjoyed this satirical post by Jason Avant).  The following response was another I read that I found deeply personal and moving..  It’s by Chris Stevens and he was kind enough to give me permission to repost it here.

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Forbes article proudly parrots bootstrap mentality

“It is a cruel jest to ask a bootless man to lift himself up by his bootstraps.” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I wish I could have the upbringing that Forbes magazine contributor Gene Marks admits to having in his recent piece “If I was a poor black kid.” Then I could say all the things I could do if I were a white kid with a middle class upbringing. But I can’t. I AM a poor black kid from one of the worst neighborhoods in Wilmington, Delaware, which is why the aforementioned article/opinion piece annoys the crap out of me.

Mr. Marks says that President Barack Obama’s most recent speech in Kansas highlights the fact that inequality on a economic level is the most pressing problem the United States is facing and that I can agree with, catchphrase of “99% vs. 1%” notwithstanding. Where it takes a turn for the damned ridiculous is when Mr. Marks starts talking about how his kids are no smarter than inner-city Philadelphia black kids and how EVERYBODY has a chance to succeed. That would be a big fat “NO,” Mr. Marks and I’ll tell you why shortly.

More into the article, Marks talks about all of the programs that poor black kids can take advantage of to help cure this recent digital divide, which is fine. But when you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from because your mother has been branded a welfare queen despite working two jobs to keep a roof over your head and you feel more obligated to make some money for yourself and your family than trying to learn all the latest gadgets. When no one in your family can afford healthcare and every damn body is running/limping/ambling around with some sort of illness, you really aren’t concerned with iPads and other trinkets because you don’t want to worry your folks with trivial stuff when you’re all trying to stay alive.

Mr. Marks goes on to say it takes a certain combination of factors for poor black kids to some how rise above, and to a degree he’s correct. Growing up in a single parent household that was better off than most of my peers, we still lived below the poverty line and we never got too comfortable even though my mother busted her ass to routinely come through in the clutch for me and my younger sister on Christmas and our birthdays. I in turn learned how to make the most of what I was given and what I could take.

Yet at 30 years old, with a college degree and a career some folks envy, I’m still scraping the poverty line, and I accept that (for now). What I can’t accept is the myth that poor blacks are given every opportunity to succeed when HBCU’s are still the best (and in some cases ONLY) option for our kids to continue their education, and they’ll still go broke doing so because the federal and state funding for those schools is – well – unequal. This is Brown vs. Board of Education is the most misunderstood Civil Rights case of them all. This was NOT about integration, not about the chance to hold hands with white kids on the playground and attend the same classes. It was about black schools, black businesses and black neighborhoods given the EXACT SAME RESOURCES as their white counterparts, but that somehow got lost in the movement.

It kills me that people still think that all it takes is a can do spirit, this “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mantra when the numbers of who’s poor/who’s going to college/who’s employed are disparate as night and day (no pun and intended).

Gene Marks closes his article by saying “Technology can help these kids. But only if the kids want to be helped. Yes, there is much inequality. But the opportunity is still there in this country for those that are smart enough to go for it.”

Too bad he never stopped to realize that being smart sometimes isn’t enough when you’re a poor black kid. You’re too worried about survival. And that’s why the economic divide will continue to grow wider, because once again, the 1% just doesn’t get it.




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