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Wednesday
Dec142011

Poor Black Kids Need To Learn To Read, Use Diigo Sez White Dude In Forbes

Hey! It's one of those articles someone writes to get attention! Tech business writer Gene Marks wrote for Forbes about what he would do if he were a poor black kid to survive. The advice can be easily summed up as -- be good in school even if your school is a nightmare; use the Internet even if you can't afford a computer and don't live near a library where you can get free access to one; Skype -- I guess if that hobo gets off that library computer you took the cross town bus to get to doesn't hog it forever; get on that hot new Diigo thing and the Cliff Notes; and become a Google Scholar. Quite a bit of the advice is hinging on Internet access which ... ahem ... is still a bit out of reach if you're using your money for things like "not starving" and "electricity."

Also, don't be a rural poor black kid. Even though there are millions of you, you don't exist, remember? Just poor city kids who are near libraries and services. When you're living deep in the woods it's like deep space ... no one can hear you scream (from lack of education).

And don't even get me started on how as a kid you're supposed to understand the long-term importance of education to the point that you want to self-educate without any influence from parents or teachers. Who's encouraging a kid (who spends most their time around their family and other kids at school) to do this stuff if no one in their world is doing it? Do poor black kids read Forbes? Does Drake rap about the Diigo?

From Forbes:

Is this easy?  No it’s not.  It’s hard.  It takes a special kind of kid to succeed.  And to succeed even with these tools is much harder for a black kid from West Philadelphia than a white kid from the suburbs.  But it’s not impossible.  The tools are there.  The technology is there.  And the opportunities there.

Marks' dunderheaded obviousness caused a flurry of collective eye rolls across the black blog n' Twitterspace. Largely because the "solutions" Marks listed put all the burden on a child whose world is largely limited by the adults ruling it. If your parents are distracted by just trying to feed and clothe you (or are non-existent in some cases), and the law states you're essentially the responsibility of some adult until you turn 18, what a child can actually do, on their own, to better their situation is limited.

You're whole world is defined by those older around you. You are, in fact, a child, and you probably don't read Forbes, or even understand the life-long consequences of what you do without an adult telling you that maybe it isn't a good idea to hang out with that one kid who has already been held back in the 6th grade three times.

I've often stated that while I was an exceptional and curious student, my parents fueled that curiosity. And while I think I would have done well in school whether I'd go to a poor school or the better funded suburban ones I attended, the determining factor of my education was, again, my parents. My mother, a former school teacher, took us to the library every week. My father, an engineer, taught us algebra and fractions. I started piano lessons at six. They bought us girls our first computer when I was 10 years old. We were repeatedly told by our parents our only "job" was school. But the key word in that sentence is PARENTS.

I did not know that I would have a love of literature, film, art and music when I was still being formed in the womb. All that was presented to me after I popped out. And "reading" wasn't even a "choice." My mother taught me to read, against my will, when I was four years old. (Allegedly, when my mother would try to teach me how to read I'd ask her if I could just draw her a picture instead. Shockingly, my mother ignored this and taught me how to read anyway.)

What do you do when none of this is even being pushed? What do you do when your parents are relying on the public school system to teach you how to read, at age five, when you finally start attending kindergarten because your parents, who are poor, are too busy trying to keep the lights on? What do you do in a world limited by geography, poverty and your parents?

Elon James White wrote a lovely response to Marks article for The Root, pointing out the absurdity of how poor kids, regardless of race, often with odds against them beyond their control are asked to be super people, to be exceptional, even if you're average, when most people -- no matter their financial background -- are rather average, but still get access to decent schools, health care, consistent nutrition and stable housing. Telling someone that getting out of poverty is as easy as just being better than everyone else is like telling a kid who stinks at athletics to just be a good enough athlete to go pro, when even good and great school athletes don't make it in the pros.

Said White:

I called my friend Dr. Blair L. Murphy Kelley at North Carolina State to talk about this nonsense, and I mentioned that I used technology to escape poverty (now I'm just sorta poor), but I also acknowledge that I got lucky. She said, "It's called resilience. When you are faced with a bunch of nonsense and you make it out anyway. It's resilience because most people don't make it. What about an average black child?"

Langston Hughes didn't write the poem "A Dream Deferred" just because he thought the words sounded pretty. "Dreams deferred" by the poverty of circumstance happens every day in America. And it doesn't just happen to poor kids. The biggest detriment, being born to people not equipped for parenthood, is a burden many face.

If Lindsay Lohan can't get over having a ex-convict, drug-addicted, rage-aholic father and a "cool" enabler mom when she had the benefit of fame and money, how can anyone be surprised that a poor kid would struggle with overcoming an overworked mother who thinks beating the crap out of you is the answer for everything while a non-existent sperm donor father travels in the wind?

I read, constantly, of people heaping pity on "poor Lindsay." Or poor whomever wayward starlet of the moment is running around sans pants and good parenting. But the sympathy always seems to dry up for the Keishas and Keyshawns of the world. You're just lazy. Why didn't you get on that cross town bus and "exceptionalize" yourself out of a poor, messed up life?

Heaven forbid we, as tax payers, try to make the system more fair and give poor children better educations, access to health care, better free and reduced school lunches, better after-school programs, better mentors and safer neighhorhoods. Kids couldn't use that, could they? Perhaps free laptop computers and cleaner parks and free public swimming pools and better access to wi-fi and someone to actually give a crap when you're tired/sad/hungry is a luxury poor kids can't afford? 

I understand the impulse to believe that anything can be over-come if you just work hard enough. And the belief that this is a one-size-fits-all solution, no matter who you are, what your situation is and what you can physically handle. But the dirty open secret is that many don't work hard at all to get what they want, and what we're really talking about is fairness and creating a level playing field in a society where the breaks and rewards are afforded to a select few, and everyone else must navigate an elaborate system where class mobility is more American "dream" than American "reality."

Americans work longer hours and for fewer benefits than most in the Western, "First World" countries, all under the belief that hard work will be rewarded. But hard work often isn't rewarded. Unless you believe that reward is "in heaven."

But if you point out the inherent unfairness in our system as a problem and not just the divine hand of the free market at work, you're labeled as some sort of Communist deserving of a Congressional Inquisition. 

Telling someone they need to be exceptional to get out of an exceptionally bad situation isn't new advice. It's a tale as old as the Dickens novel "Great Expectations." But even poor, beat down Pip had the help of a mysterious benefactor, secretly guiding his path out of poverty and parentlessness. 

What do you get when even a calvary of one isn't coming to save you?

I'd rather read a post about what we can do to help poor black kids, than a fantasy listing of what a kid who doesn't even have Internet access and doesn't read Forbes can do for him or herself.

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Reader Comments (10)

Danielle, this article moved me, and made me even angrier at Marks! What kills me, is how can this man have the audacity to write this article when he has no idea what it's like to be in that situation! Has he ever sat down and had a conversation with a young black person living in poverty? Or any young person living in poverty? I think not. And how does he think writing article in Forbes (something I'm sure most people living in poverty don't read/don't have access to) will help these people? Marks clearly doesn't live in the real world.

December 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmber

Excellent in depth analysis as usual Snob!

December 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterOSHH

I've heard things such as what Marks' articulates since I was a small child, even from other people I grew up around who were also poor. Many of them couldn't understand how a child just won't "go to school," and "better," themselves. I believed all of this, hook, line and sinker--that is until I grew up and went out into the world. As I navigated my social reality I began noticing little things around me. I would work twice as hard as my co-workers and yet not get a promotion. People were shocked that I could speak the Queen's English and that I was bilingual. I got followed around in stores despite being well dressed and having money in hand. Suddenly, these little micro-aggressions culminated in an awakening and I realized that some people (not all) are a little racist. And some people (not all) are a lot racist. And sexist. And classist. And so on. These feelings come out in everyday interactions that, when multiplied, affect the lives of millions of people everyday.


My "aha!" moment rushed over me and I was nearly giddy with glee that I was not crazy. I told people "Life isn't fair. Most of the time it's because people aren't fair to each other. And yet, we expect people to have fair odds." The response I got was "Duh! Now welcome to the real world." This is our reality. It has been this way for eons and yet, being the lazy species we are, instead of tackling the problems, we blame the victims and say it's their fault. I would have had more respect for Marks is he had put his money where his mouth was and decided to get off his rump and go into a poverty-ridden neighborhood to give kids the guidance they need. But no, that would be too much like....helping another human being who is less fortunate. It's easier to simply hold poor Black people up to a standard that most others humans could only barely achieve.

December 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKeke

"I still stick to what I wrote, and believe that the opportunity is there for everyone if they study hard and get good grades, use technology to help them get good grades, apply to the best schools they can, get help from their guidance counselor, and make sure to learn a good skill." - Gene Marks, in response to comments on his Forbes article

He still doesn't get it. I love the unspoken implications of the "make sure to learn a good skill" part.

He is incapable of seeing how his "advice" is useless to millions of people he is supposedly trying to help out of despondency. Totally missing the point in every way. Maybe Forbes should keep their privileged opinions to themselves.

December 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCorvus

Excellent analysis as usual (also kudos on the Essence article)! What many fail to realize is that you can't expect someone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, when they don't even have a pair of shoes to begin with...

December 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterThatOneAKA

Well crafted response.

December 15, 2011 | Unregistered Commentergsutiger2

This makes me want to spit.

December 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenJen

fact of the matter is that young people of color spend more time using social networking sites and other technology (like cell phones) than whites.

http://abcnews.go.com/WN/cell-phones-demography-nielsen-data-breaks-mobile-phone/story?id=11468925#.Tuog_lav-H8

http://pewinternet.org/Commentary/2010/September/Technology-Trends-Among-People-of-Color.aspx

and they're still getting out performed by a wide margin. in fact, compare cell phone and text usage vs. academic achievement. it's an inverse relationship. so is it completely lack of technology, or completely jacked up priorities and/or laziness? or is it a combination of the two? or is all the white man's fault?

December 15, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterswiv

Excellent post. I could not agree more. After I read this I was struck by the fact that once again we have someone (Marks) who is not going to speak directly to the folks they claim they want to "help" (Forbes!? You have got to be kidding!). That is when I had an epiphany! This article was not really written for poor black kids at all! it was written for the rich hedge-fund managers that read Forbes! It is not about really helping poor black (or other) kids to succeed. It is about a feel good for white folks! It absolves them of all responsibility in the matter. You see, black (and other poor) kids are the only ones that are born into a cultural vacuum where everything is up to them and nothing is the fault of the systemic manner in which they are devalued based on things beyond their control. In this vacuum the only reality that exists is based on Horatio Alger. If you cannot pull yourself up by your bootstraps you are defined as lazy and a failure. Because you see the system is just fine the way it is. The (lucky) kids that benefit from money, alumni connections and skin privilege are just better than you. That is why they have been so lucky in the first place. Until and unless the folks reading Forbes actually decide to engage the very human condition of the folks they are treating like test-tube babies (or exotic curiosities...Oh look at that poor black child...) the situation will never change. It is in the corridors of power that real change i.e. opportunities are provided. Maybe Marks should have a field trip for the local public school to Forbes so they can start to make the connections they will need later in life. Internships are a good start. Of course the kids will need to learn to read first...

December 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commentergundam83

Excellent commentary Snob--and superb comment to gundam83 as well--You hit the nail on the head, it was most def for the yt men running all the Corporations and the US along with them--into the ground. Swiv--surely you jest. You are still stoking the 'blame the victim' fires. This isn't about, "oh they don't study hard and do their homework." This is about access, it is about racism, it is about class-ism, it is about lack of opportunities, it is about Being Marginalized which is really what your comment speaks to...

I would bet you dollars to donuts that the majority of the young folks on twitter, et. al, are using cell phones--which have been made pretty accessible even as consistent access, as one can drop one phone company and go to another before the bills catch up. You can't do a lot of thorough research or paper writing on a cell phone though.

Why do you suppose these young Black kids are so visible on the social media front? Have you ever studied social psychology or taken any sociology or psych classes? If not, I suggest you start there. I suggest you thoroughly study internalized oppression and fully grasp its meaning before you go all "here you go blaming the white man for your ills" on us.

December 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLMO85
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