Sunday, December 18, 2011

"If I Were a Poor Black Kid"...But You're Not

By now you may have heard about Gene Marks' article in Forbes magazine entitled "If I Were a Poor Black Kid" in which he makes a valiant if not well intentioned effort to prescribe certain steps that poor Black kids growing up in the 'hood can take to earn their piece of the American Dream like he did.  Speaking as somebody who grew up as a poor Black kid, I can say from first hand experience that many Black children who grew up and are growing up under conditions similarly situated to my childhood experience would undoubtedly be benefited by much of Marks' advice.  So let me be clear from the outset: many Black children growing up poor in America today can and should be doing more to better themselves in terms of education.  There is no question about that fact. Where I depart with Marks, however, is with the following premise based in faulty inductive reasoning where he posits that literally "everybody" can earn their piece of the American Dream just like he did if they only pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps through hard work.

Mr. Marks stated, in pertinent part:
I am not a poor black kid.  I am a middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background.  So life was easier for me.  But that doesn’t mean that the prospects are impossible for those kids from the inner city.  It doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities for them.   Or that the 1% control the world and the rest of us have to fight over the scraps left behind.  I don’t believe that.  I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed.  Still.  In 2011.  Even a poor black kid in West Philadelphia. It takes brains.  It takes hard work.  It takes a little luck.  And a little help from others.  It takes the ability and the know-how to use the resources that are available.  Like technology.  As a person who sells and has worked with technology all my life I also know this.

Brains, hard work, a little luck and a little help from others are things that I'm sure Marks, by his own admission, received as a middle class White kid growing up in middle class suburbia.  Just because one middle class White kid had these tools at his disposal does not mean that "all" kids have these tools at their disposal.  That is a logical fallacy based on nothing more than self-serving emotional feelings and fueled by inductive reasoning.  After all, just because one dog has spots does not give us license to say that "all" dogs have spots.  As we all know, not all dogs have spots and, by that same token, not all inner city Black kids have the same access to "a little luck" and "a little help from others" that Marks had during his upbringing. 

In a most perplexing manner, Marks concedes that he lacks the experience to empathize with the actual day-today lives of poor Black kids growing up in West Philadelphia, but then proceeds to assume that they have the same opportunities that he had.  He assumes that their living conditions are even in the same universe as his living conditions as a child.  He assumes that their number one priority - education - is the same as his number one priority when he was growing up.  These glaring assumptions damage his overall message, which, as stated above, is otherwise a noble one.  The Black-White achievement gap on SAT and ACT tests suggests that we have a long way to go in terms of educating children from lower economic backgrounds, but the connection between Mark's assumptions and what it actually takes for Black children to attain the American Dream is a bridge too far.

When I lived in central ward Newark, New Jersey a few years ago, I literally lived across the street from the local crack dealers near Shabazz High School. I saw a lot of action in that neighborhood but the one thing that stands out in my memory to this day was a mom who came through the snow to buy crack with her young daughter. The daughter couldn’t have been much older than 3.  The mother purchased the crack with her left hand, and in her right hand she was holding her daughter’s hand who was standing next to her at all of about 2 and half feet tall. I remember being struck by one inescapable fact: that young girl never had a chance. Gene Marks’ optimism is commendable, but it’s simply not realistic to assume that everyone has a chance to succeed because not everyone does.  For many Black students, their number one priority is simply to survive the world into which they have been thrust through no fault of their own.  For many Black kids, their reality is growing up around violence, drugs, abuse and a whole host of other deplorable conditions that not only make school work a distant second place concern, but, moreover, make some of Marks' comments downright laughable.
If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently.   I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city...If I was a poor black kid I would get technical.  I would learn software.  I would learn how to write code.  I would seek out courses in my high school that teaches these skills or figure out where to learn more online.  I would study on my own.  I would make sure my writing and communication skills stay polished. 
Best grades possible?  Read sufficiently? Man, get real.  There are children from all different racial and ethnic backgrounds growing up in America's inner cities right now as we speak who don't even know if they're going to find a meal today, or know where they're going to sleep tonight, or whether they're going to even be alive at the end of the week (and quite frankly, some of them won't).  

Again, let me be clear, academic achievement is, of course, something important that we should encourage all children to work towards.  However, there is a significant difference between making the general statement that all children should work towards bettering themselves academically, and saying - as Marks does here - that the conditions facing Black children can be overcome by merely studying harder.  Concerns for academic achievement, Mr. Gene Marks, are your concerns; do not attempt to assume that you know the concerns of others, because you don't.

1. What do you make of Marks' position?
2. Does he assume too much and, if so, are those assumptions harmful to the dialogue we need to have about educating poor Black youth?
3. Would the problems facing poor Black kids be solved if they simply studied harder?
4. What can we do in order to reduce the violence that many Black youth are exposed to today?
5. What can we do in order to close the Black-White achievement gap?
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