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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