Earlier this week Gene Marks, who by all appearances happens to be a middle age white man, wrote a piece for Forbes called 'If I Was A Poor Black Kid'. Problematic title of course. I wonder if it was his choice or the magazine's. The article amounts to a list of suggestions that might be employed by a disadvantaged youth of color to improve his or her circumstances. Some of them were so blatantly obvious and commonly stated that you wonder why Marks bothered to repeat them. Stay in school and study hard. Computer literacy is a good thing. However, since many poor black kids (think I'll shorten to PBK going forward) do not focus and excel in computer class or anywhere else in school, no harm in reminding. A couple of his tips were a little less obvious, possibly even helpful to a MOTIVATED PBK who might stumble upon the article. "Motivated" is capitalized for a reason. The primary curse of poverty is that it squelches motivation to rise above.
The ensuing ridicule heaped upon Mr. Marks (complete with at least one Twitter hashtag for guidance) was swift and relentless. Critics showed their disdain with a few quickly dashed sentences of mockery for starters, then set off to write fully fleshed out responses. I won't name drop them as I've done with Marks, but chances are you've either seen a published rebuttal or else a Google search will lead you to one in an instant.
The annoyance and derision inspired by Marks' article was basically on account of the messenger, even if writers claimed it was the message that got under their skin. How dare a PRIVILEGED (capitalized because it's the curse word du jour) white man dispense advice from his ivory tower to the darker, huddled masses? He isn't one of them, never was, never will be, so he may as well be the teacher talking to Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts gang - Blah blah blah.
No one who felt compelled to answer the Forbes article with one of their own seemed to think that perhaps Marks' heart was in the right place, even if the anatomical result looked more like his foot in his mouth. The rebuttals weren't about providing alternative suggestions, superior recommendations. They weren't about disproving the point that if you find yourself in the worst school, striving to be the best at the worst may give you a fighting chance. Marks grossly under-evaluated a major societal woe and proposed simplistic solutions. But in attacking him, his detractors did not remedy a thing. They merely seized upon an opportunity to make fun and proclaim "how dare you". The rebuttals were much hipper and far funnier than the original piece, so laughs and declarations of agreement were achieved. But not a single PBK's life was potentially improved as result. They remain firmly rooted in their role of political football as we approach the next big election year.
Who is it that actually does have the ear of poor black kids? Hip hop artists for starters. The vast majority of them are not conveying messages that will aid in turning a life around. A very strong argument can be made that certain rap lyrics and videos help perpetuate the mindset of valuing flashy style over substance, leading to a dead end. Yet when the next catchy tune comes out that's all about getting high, degrading women, making a quick buck to throw away on status symbols, there will be few complaints and probably no Open Letters imploring rappers to teach our children well. No, such ire is reserved for a white guy who has poked his nose where it doesn't belong. Apparently you have to prove you're cool enough to give a damn about PBK's, but ironically, if you are deemed cool enough you're given a pass and don't have to care.
Here are some of my suggestions, not for poor black kids but for anyone who legitimately cares to lend them a helping hand. Join a Big Brother/Sister mentoring program. Become a foster or adoptive parent. Donate money and/or time (time is always the best donation) to an organization that provides food/books/shelter/guidance to those in need of any or all of the above. Be a role model in both word and deed, not merely a dime-a-dozen snark generator. If you're really ambitious, consider running for president. Barack Obama has surely convinced a few underprivileged kids that contrary to what Newt Gingrich thinks, their future can hold more in store for them than a janitorial gig. Not that there's anything wrong with being a janitor, although it pays substantially less than windbag historian. Even the punchline that is Herman Cain sets an example of achievement. Go to an inner city school where you're sure to meet plenty of PBK's in the flesh and won't have to think of them conceptually, and if you have nothing wise or useful to say, simply listen to what they have to tell you. Last of all, focus a little less on being clever, a little more on being kind.
Below is the advice I gave to Mr. Marks on Twitter in response to his article. I don't think he follows me so if he follows you, please forward. Thanks!
The article was written by @genemarks for Forbes. With a title like that you're just asking to be mocked. Many won't even go past title.
I tried to read it with an open mind. I also forgave him in advance for sins he is not at all alone in committing. Like the dumb title.
Pretty much every day I see some blog posting with a provocative title & people responding more to the title than the piece itself. I'm not a big fan of that. Focus on making the full piece provocative, not just its entrance point. People will be more likely to read attentively.
The article is a list of things this guy says he would do to make his life so much better as an adult had he started out a poor black kid. None of the items listed is offensive. None of it is illuminating. It's just a list that makes a couple points a poor kid of any race might want to jot down.
The author makes no actual attempt to imagine what poverty feels like, what being disenfranchised feels like, what lacking hope feels like.
The article didn't offend me because I don't think it was mean spirited. Points that were valid for some people were made. Easy enough to do.
Of course you can pull yourselves up by your bootstraps if properly motivated. Odds of that motivation being found in a Forbes article of all places are slim. Not exactly reaching the demographic you’re writing about. When you’re talking about people under the guise of talking to them, you’re doing little more that theorizing amongst your friends.
If you grow up poor in a loving household where better days are planned & hoped for you, chances are decent you'll get there.
If you grow up thinking nobody really gives a shit about you, one parent missing physically & the other going through motions while fighting their demons, life will be hard.
Instead of writing an article about what poor black kids should or should not do, do something tangible to help them reach their potential.
Once you're done actually dealing with a situation, getting your hands dirty instead of moralizing from high horse, THEN write your article.
You don't know what you'd do if you were anybody but yourself. If you could be in a different skin, you'd be a different you.