Roundup: The many ways “If I Was a Poor Black Kid” got it seriously wrong

PhotobucketHave you seen this BS? A self-described “middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background” wrote an article for Forbes called “If I Was a Poor Black Kid.” [sic]

If you haven’t seen it yet, first of all, bless you for not spending all your time on the internet!

And second of all, I’ll save you the trouble and give you the short version: “If this middle class white guy was somehow transformed into a poor black kid, he’d pull himself up by the virtual bootstraps, mostly with Google Scholar, to rise above his circumstances.”


This from the same guy who devoted an entire column to giving reasons why most women will never become CEO. (A few gems: Because his  teenage daughter and her friends weren’t feeling chatty when he picked them up from the movies. Also, because he is “an ass”- his words not mine- and makes his wife do all the work in child-rearing.)

The central fallacy of this guy’s argument isn’t that he thinks white male privilege doesn’t exist. It’s that he seems to believe privilege is something to be named, talked about, given lip-service, but doesn’t get how it actually operates in the Real World. He doesn’t get that poverty, racism, structural inequality, actually exist in real life, in real PEOPLE’s lives, and he certainly doesn’t get how ignorance like his own help perpetuate them.

Ok so I ’ll admit, I was all heated about it on Monday, but I was NOT looking forward to having to write another explanatory post on white male privilege, or another infuriated post on white male privilege, or for that matter ANY MORE POSTS on white male privilege!!

That’s why  I’m so thankful to my Internet Friends for taking care of this one for me. Maybe the only upside of another middle class white dude showing his ignorance is that it inspires a lot of smart people to say a lot of smart things about privilege, poverty, and progress. Check out a roundup of the best responses to this inane column after the jump.

Akiba Solomon has a great take down today:

The assumption here, of course, is that poor black kids in West Philadelphia (the ‘hood I’m from, by the way) don’t like reading and writing, that they’re too busy hippidity hopping and bling-fixating to make their shitty schools work for them.

The irony of Marks’s vision is that it’s so thoroughly mediocre. He can flaunt his own “I don’t know much about much” ethos because he’s not a poor black kid. The reality is that to compete in earnest with the children of middle class, white male, tech writers, poor black kids (and their brown, Asian and Native American sistren and brethren) have to be beyond excellent. And they still might not get the fucking scholarship. Hell, they might not even have a secure, safe place to live. (Thanks subprime housing market!)

Marks could have used technology himself and Googled to find a few of the structural barriers he glances past. In just the past couple of months we’ve seen news that black students get suspended at a far higher rate for the same infractions as white students; that all but four of the students NYPD arrested this summer and fall were black or Latino; and that those poor black kids who evade the police-state in their schools and make it to college aren’t finding Marks’s easy-grab scholarships, since one in three of them owe more than $38,000.

Ta-Nehisi Coates doesn’t disappoint on the Atlantic blog:

This basic extension of empathy is one of the great barriers in understanding race in this country. I do not mean a soft, flattering, hand-holding empathy. I mean a muscular empathy rooted in curiosity. If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity. The first rule is this–You are not extraordinary. It’s all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it’s much more interesting to assume that you wouldn’t and then ask “Why?”
This is not an impossible task. But often we find that we have something invested in not asking “Why?” The fact that we — and I mean all of us, black and white — are, in our bones, no better than slave masters is chilling. The upshot of all my black nationalist study was terrifying — give us the guns and boats and we would do the same thing. There is nothing particularly noble about black skin. And to our present business it is equally chilling to understand that the obstacles facing poor black kids can’t be surmounted by an advice column.

But Cord Jefferson’s response in Good might just be my favorite:

There’s a lot wrong with “If I Was a Poor Black Kid,” not the least of which is the grammar in the title. But the biggest issue with the piece and everything like it is that it assumes being poor and black are the only two things on poor black kids’ plates. Content to generalize based on simplistic depictions of black poverty from TV and film, Marks believes that the only thing low-income minorities have to overcome is terrible teachers and a lack of technological knowledge; the rest of their problems stem from outright laziness. “If I was a poor black kid,” writes Marks, “I’d become expert at Google Scholar.” I’m not sure a more tone-deaf sentence has ever appeared in Forbes. To Marks, poor children exist in a vacuum where their only problem is poverty. In real life, poverty is a cloud that darkens every facet of a child’s life, from his academic career to how he sleeps at night knowing his home is a brothel.

There are a huge number of resources available for Marks to read and watch to better understand the plight of poor minorities, and many of them can be found online. Alas, it seems that even he, a wealthy white professional, has yet to master Google Scholar.

Perhaps also of interest is this excellent New York Times piece that gets at some more systemic solutions to class-related achievement gaps.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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  • Ashley Rivers
  • toongrrl

    You know, I know ya’ll would hate me rambling about here, but I have something to say. There was this one episode of “Tales from the Darkside” about a debt collecter who after being heartless to the concerns of various clients, gets harassed by a client from beyond the grave. She gets visited by this man who turns out to some sort of angel or whatever, he explains to her what happened to this one client of hers: the client killed herself after learning she’ll lose her place. Now the debt collecter believes that if she were in the same position as any of her clients, she’d “pull herself up by her bootstraps” so the angel guy ends up making her that client. Same apartment, same problems in the kitchen, same accent, same everything. Obviously she finds that she can’t even pull herself up by her feet .

  • Michelle

    Wow. I went and read the article, and yeah, that guy makes himself look pretty bad. How clueless can you get? I thought the best comment/retort came from this gent:

    Sir, as a white kid who grew up on welfare in a single-parent home and went on to graduate from Stanford, you might think that I would support you. Instead, I am so incredibly dissappointed in your ignorant “recipe” for success. I got into a magnet school that my mom found out about by sheer accident. I went to the library and read a lot because it was the only place with adequate heat and electricity. The problem? I got evicted more times than I can count. Our utilities got shut off so often. I did not, contrary to your “teacher friends’” assessment, have a computer at home. Had I known about any of these tools (likelihood is that I would not have and that my mother would have been even less likely to as a waitress working 15 hours a day 6 days a week), I still wouldn’t have been able to use them. What library system could accommodate all the poor kids (of any race) to help them to realize this goal? Where would I find the time to use these resources when I started to work at age 15? Where would I get my stamina to study “coding” when we didn’t have enough food to eat dinner that day? It is articles like these that perpetuate the systemic ignorance of the role class and race play on success and prevent us from real solutions. You clearly do not understand what it is like to be poor, and your blindness is a danger because this article will only reach those who are well enough to-do to have an impact on policies that directly affect your mythical “poor black kid.” And those policy makers will make terrible choices that entrench systemic racism and class division even further in our country. Shame on you.

    • Cate

      I think that if anything good came out of the writing of this article, it is the take-down of the author’s ideas. People are writing incredibly intelligent, well-thought-out comments either relating their own experiences growing up poor, whatever their race, and the way it really is. People are also writing about privilege: the kind that poor black kids don’t have, and the kind that the author clearly does. I don’t know if he generally gets this kind of response to other columns he writes, but in my ideal world, he is reading, taking it in, and maybe his views will change, even just a little bit.

      Or at least maybe he’ll keep these particular thoughts to himself in the future.