Forbes Columnist Criticized for ‘Poor Black Kid’ Advice

December 13, 2011  |  

Gene Marks, a self-professedmiddle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background” has drawn a bit of criticism for an article he wrote detailing his suggestions for what poor black kids should do in order to succeed academically and professionally.

It was a risky move and Marks gets points for using the widening income gap between the rich and the poor as a news hook and circling back to something he actually knows about—technology—in his “If I were a Poor Black Kid” column for Forbes. Technology is an area that is ripe for penetration and certainly one that could use more black faces, as the recent CNN Black in America special pointed out. But for every good point that Marks makes in terms of how to get ahead as a poor black kid, he neglects to mention the obstacles that halt many of those attempts. It’s not so much the suggestions that Marks puts forth that are the problem, it’s the oversimplified manner in which he assumes these things can be achieved.

For instance, if Marks, “a short, balding and mediocre certified public accountant” were in fact a black kid he 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.  Even the worst have their best.  And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities.  Getting good grades is the key to having more options.  With good grades you can choose different, better paths.  If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have.”

After laying out his poor black kid master plan from grade school through college, Marks sums up the issue with this:

“The division between rich and poor is a national problem.  But the biggest challenge we face isn’t inequality. It’s ignorance.  So many kids from West Philadelphia don’t even know these opportunities exist for them. Many come from single-parent families whose mom or dad (or in many cases their grand mom) is working two jobs to survive and are just (understandably) too plain tired to do anything else in the few short hours they’re home.  Many have teachers who are overburdened and too stressed to find the time to help every kid that needs it.  Many of these kids don’t have the brains to figure this out themselves – like my kids.  Except that my kids are just lucky enough to have parents and a well-funded school system around to push them in the right direction.

“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.”

Essentially, what Marks has laid out in his go to a charter school, attempt to go to private school, study at the library article, is an against-all-odds approach that only addresses one odd—poverty. Yes, education is absolutely key to escaping poverty, but being poor isn’t a simplistic issue that can be fixed with a library card, as he suggests. Poverty is sometimes a mindset and it’s multi-layered, with race in this particular instance, and a host of other things.

On one hand, the idea of not letting any circumstances get in your way that Marks is proposing is a good one, but on the other, it speaks to the disconnect the majority of white America has when it comes to understanding the complexities of life as a poor black kid. It’s not that these children don’t want to be helped, it’s that they are vulnerable to less-than-desirable circumstances that have an influence on their lives that is often much greater than the seven hours or so they spend in school each day. And unfortunately, that negative influence wins in too many instances. When all is said and done, you could do everything Marks suggested and still not get anywhere because of a little thing called institutional racism, which he neglected to discuss. No, that’s not an excuse not to try in the first place but it is an obstacle that many black people succumb to when they attempt to go by the book and still have doors slammed in their faces. That’s a reality poor, black kids have to be prepared for in order to build perseverance and the answer can’t be mulled over in a mere 1,200 words essay for a non-poor-black-kid audience.

I think Marks could no doubt influence some underprivileged black children with this game plan, but if he wants the message to stick, he’s going to have to gain a greater understanding of life as a poor black kid, and build from there. His ignorance to poor black life shows, and at times overshadows his point.

You can read Marks’ column in its entirety on Forbes’ website. What do you think of what he suggested? Do you see any issues with his approach or is he right on the mark with what poor black kids should be doing?

Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.

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  • F3ral Anarchy

    makes me wonder what those folks who survived the civil rights era and jim crow laws have to say about todays youth.

  • Elegance

    I read the article. I think that his advice is great for anyone who wants to do well. I wasn’t bothered by it at all until I read people’s comments. I didn’t grow up poor so I thought it was great advice for someone like me. I would give that advice to my future kids. Maybe the article would have been received better if it was just about what he would do if he was a kid again, or his advice to kids. That would leave the poor kids out though and someone might be bothered about that. 

    I don’t understand Madame Noire’s argument that he did not discuss institutionalized racism. The article was about what a kid could do to improve their chances. How would a kid prevent himself/herself from being discriminated against? If there is no way to prevent it then it doesn’t belong in the article. I read somewhere else that warning kids about racism can actually make them fearful and feel helpless so they don’t try. Maybe we shouldn’t be warning them as much as we do. 

    I feel torn about the article because I think it was great advice but of course it is not applicable to everyone. Why do we even expect him to be so in touch with what it’s like to be poor and black? I don’t know what that’s like either other than what I read or hear about from others or my parents about when they were kids. Is there are better article about how a poor Black kid could succeed? What advice would the complainers give other than stating why it’s almost impossible to succeed? How helpful are those comments to a poor Black kid?

  • JH

    This is the problem when people, especially white Americans want to trivialize race. He makes it all so simple; but how do you expect a kid living in poverty (real poverty- not the “I only have basic cable and we don’t have enough to get the latest video game so I got a refurbished one” kind of poverty) to be able to focus solely on scholastics if they have to worry about violence in their neighborhood. It’s hard to study on a hungry stomach. I’ve never been victim to that type of poverty but looking back I know now that some friends did and I couldn’t understand why they just couldn’t ‘get it’. So, my simple pre-pubescent mind frame towards poverty seems to be that of middle aged white America, or so one would think based off this article.

    The title of the article is insensitive but again, we live in a society where people try to pretend that all is well within races and no one gets or should be offended. He goes on to say “The President’s speech got me thinking.  My kids are no smarter than similar kids their age from the inner city.”- really!? He just noticed that? So before the President gave his speech he assumed all poor black children were just dumb and didn’t want to be helped. The only thing worse that white guilt is forced white guilt. It makes me want to write an article “If I was a pompous White American” and it would read “I’d stay out of race relations”. The End.

  • KevinFerere

    But none of this has to do with race though…

  • Kimberley

    How many poor black kids will read Forbes or have regular online access. The article is patronising. If the author wants to do some good, get involved in after school projects, get middle class politicians to close the poverty gap, stop the increasing mess school districts are ending up in because of lack of funds, unemployment is destroying inner city communities, poor parents often dont have the resources to get additional educational help. School may be a vital issue for poor youngsters but unless the schools are good and well equipped poor children have no chance.Why did he not see if a black newspapers could carry the article no poor child will read it in Forbes.

  • Five5five

    His point is not news enough to matter. Yes work hard and play by the rules, but lets face the reality that poverty is institutional. That when we mix race and class we get a lower life chance. That if you’re a person of color and poor the odds are even more against you. That as a society we are not making the rules or access to resources fair and equal. We have to draw more attention to those facts, so that kids that work hard and play by the rules can actually have a chance without having to be a superhero. Middle class and upper class children don’t have to be superheroes, they just have to try the opportunities are there for them, lets as a society (community) make that possible for all.

  • Guess

    Concerning poor black kids, the issue has to do with their circumstances.  From my experience, many dont have what they need at home; encouragement, proper nutrition, stability, etc.  Also, schools in poor neighborhoods have to sacrifice more while receiving very little, including teacher longevity. 

    Having only taught only in low income neighborhoods, the poor black community has to accept that many decisions made at home are the direct causes for our children’s troubles.  We have to stop deflecting what’s going on in our homes.  Yes, we know that people of all races deal with poverty and neglect, but this doesnt take away from what is happening in our communities. 

    I haven’t read the full NYT article, but according to the excerpt posted on this page, he is telling the truth.  Many of you can make excuses by stating that he should speak about ALL children of ALL races, but it still doesnt take away from the fact that our kids are in trouble.  I saw it for firsthand.  I didnt have to read articles and watch television to know what’s happening in poor schools.

    • Girliusmaximus

      I agree with you…

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  • Carmen San Diego

    Maybe is the title that bothers me….As a kid you can’t pick your parents or your social economical status..maybe the article should be headed “Poor’s kid guide to success” …to me that imply poor equals black….. His approach is the “pick yourself up by the bootstrap approach” which works in retrospect as a an adult but not a 10 year old kid……To me success starts with building the kids self esteem….Let them know you can do whatever , be whatever versus the mentality of “your daddy ain’t ish so you ain’t ish”….With encouragement anything is possible because it is…..A great school system means zero if your kids don’t gave that positive reinforcement at home …. Whole he’s focused on the “colored kids” what about these netur head, hugging white kids? Not all white kids go to college, not all white people are successful…..

  • guest

    Yeah, I feel you. But there are also poor white children that he should have address as well as poor black children. Poverty is universal, not just a “black thing”. His article would have come full circle for me if he included poor white children as well. We AA need to be accountable for our actions as well. Instead of letting some “white guy” define how we should behave. We as a people need to break from the “demon of poverty” first. This demon  tells us every day in our ear that, we cant, we shouldn’t, were to sensitive, we don’t deserve, be happy with nothing, etc. Let US break those shackles first. Poverty is a demonic spirit.

    The best advice my dad gave me was that.”I can be and do whatever I want, I can go and be wherever I want. I can have whatever education I want”. Of course all these things with in reason and positive actions only. IJS.

  • Djsarge

    I actually agree with the author. It is not the only thing that will help young brothers and sisters, but it is one of few things that are within an individual’s control.

    • Sofi

      He’s a jerk, but I somewhat agree. If these kids focused on reading, writing, mathematics and getting good grades, these stats would be very different. You can only place so much blame on poverty. Children in third world countries have been known to use marbles and rocks in order to teach themselves math, the same way I sat down with a pencil and a “how to” activity book and taught myself cursive in the first grade. Its all about motivation. These same kids come to the U.S. with their families and always manage to academically excel far beyond all racial groups.

      I went to a blue ribbon middle & high school in a middle class neighborhood and I can honestly say that a good number of my black peers could absolutely care less about school. The results are sadly aparent today becasue I run into them and see the difference between them and my former white/asian/indian peers.
      In the black crowd unless you had a north face, the freshest kicks…of course they haaadd to match your lacoste polo, coach or LV bag, nails done, hair done, “everything did” …you werent cool. period. Heaven forbid you spoke like a “white person”. In college, NOOOONNEE of that crap matters.
      The asian and white kids partied, they were promiscuous, they smoked weed and did everything under the sun, however, they could get away with it becasue studying and getting good grades was still a priority. Even if it meant cheating to get ahead, they were determined to succeed. Especially in instances with the foreign kids, A minuses and B’s werent accepted by their families… let alone C’s, and they werent always “rich”. Their parents owned small businesses, some simply worked as manicurists and estheticians -humble jobs. However these students had the mentality that they would succeed and raise their parents up. These visions could not and would not be clouded with the media, music, fashion, romance or ignorance.  

      • British

        Im sure the Asians, whites had parents who provided encouragement

  • AA

    Sadly, the most informative article on here today has very little views and 1 comment(mine).  Great article and thanks for informing Brande!