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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"If I was a poor black kid"

The interwebs are ablaze today with reactions to Gene Marks essay posted at Forbes.com.  The original post is interesting, but what's riveting are the amazing essays that have been written in response.  I can't decide which I like best.

I almost cried when I read Cord Jefferson:

. . . You find this sort of thing a lot among the white, moneyed, conservative set: "If only blacks and Latinos would work harder, they'd be fine." I don't think Marks and people who think like that are malicious, but I'd love to ask them how best to focus on your studies when all you can think about is the very real possibility that your mother is being assaulted in the bedroom where you're supposed to find sanctuary at night. How best to prioritize learning to read rigorously over scheming to get home and be the man of the house in the stead of the father who left? How best to find joy in school with so much hate and bitterness poisoning the rest of your life?

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.

And Ta-Nehisi Coates almost had me cheering - his essay is extremely brave and thought-provoking:

When I read this piece I was immediately called back, as I so often am, to my days at Howard and the courses I took looking at slavery. Whenever we discussed the back-breaking conditions, the labor, the sale of family members etc., there was always someone who asserted, roughly, "I couldn't been no slave. They'd a had to kill me!" I occasionally see a similar response here where someone will assert, with less ego, "Why didn't the slaves rebel?" More commonly you get people presiding from on high insisting that if they had lived in the antebellum South, they would have freed all of their slaves.

What all these responses have in common is a kind benevolent, and admittedly unintentional, self-aggrandizement. These are not bad people (much as I am sure Mr. Marks isn't a bad person), but they are people speaking from a gut feeling, a kind of revulsion at a situation which offends our modern morals.

. . . It is comforting to believe that we, through our sheer will, could transcend these bindings -- to believe that if we were slaves, our indomitable courage would have made us Frederick Douglass . . .

Still, we are, in the main, ordinary people living in plush times. We are smart enough to get by, responsible enough to raise a couple of kids, thrifty to sock away for a vacation, and industrious enough to keep the lights on. We like our cars. We love a good cheeseburger. We'd die without air-conditioning. In the great mass of humanity that's ever lived, we are distinguished only by our creature comforts, but on the whole, mediocre.

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.

. . . The answers are out there. But they will not improve your self-esteem.

Kelly Virella tells it like it is too:

. . . Marks’ argument is essentially a kindler-gentler version of this post-Civil War rhetoric, spruced up with a tip of the hat to the wonders of the white man’s technology. So naturally, I detest it. I know my history and I know when someone is trying offer me the same okie-doke they offered my ancestors. They put up with it, because they were afraid and had few choices. But this is not 1865. “Equality of opportunity” was bullshit then and it’s bullshit now. So my advice is quit bringing it up, because we’re not having it.

The reason so many Americans are talking about inequality, is because we intend to actually drastically reduce or eliminate it. I am not opposed to working hard. But I am opposed to participating in an economy in which people like Marks A) unilaterally set the rules and B) stack the deck against my community and pretend that the real problem is our “ignorance” of opportunities.

I see no reason why my progeny should have to be any more special than Marks’ to succeed. But more importantly, I see no reason to tolerate the persistence of policies designed to restrict the number of black children who can succeed. If I were the middle class white guy Gene Marks, I’d see the handwriting on the wall and start acquiescing to some wealth redistribution, while the messenger is still a nice middle class black lady like me.



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