Middle-aged, white Forbes contributing writer Gene Marks, in his recent piece, "If I Were a Poor Black Kid," presented some now-infamous ideas for how he would personally rise to success if he suddenly found himself young, African American and poverty-stricken.
Marks would "get technical," learn software," "learn how to write code," "figure out where to learn more online," "become an expert at Google Scholar" and regularly peruse the CIA World Factbook. He would then get himself into a top school, and he would "succeed." The end.
Oh. If only Marks had given out this priceless advice before, we would have eliminated racial inequalities long ago.
As a curious side note, it's unclear how this is any different from what he would do if he were a poor white kid. But also, there's no word in the piece on how Marks imagines that he would, as a poor child, suddenly be infused with the perspective and sophistication of a middle-class adult. In addition, he, perhaps unintentionally, admits that his advice is useless to all but a select few gifted, mature and lucky children. (He doesn't have any thoughts on what he would do if he were not a "special kind of kid" who miraculously became aware of the admissions processes of magnet schools and the value of TED talks and the Khan Academy.)
We pointed out earlier this week that there's a possibility that Marks knew exactly how naive, condescending and detached from reality his suggestions sounded, and was being intentionally controversial to maximize his page views (and payout) from Forbes. He does, after all, seem to have quite the knack for drumming up hits by writing about hot topics.
But since he's come to the defense of his piece, we can only assume that he was sincere (versus, as one Root commenter suggested, looking for alternatives to marrying Kim Kardashian to claim 15 minutes of fame).
The responses to the article have ranged from serious to satirical and, as a whole, have done what the original piece couldn't: They contribute to a conversation about race, opportunity and structural inequalities in ways that are thoughtful, grounded in history and reality and, often, pretty funny (but, unlike Marks' post, the humor is on purpose). Check them out here:
Jim Windolf's "If I Were a Middle-Aged White Guy": "If I were a middle-aged white guy, I would lease a nice car. Having a nice car makes a nice impression on others. And I would keep the car pristine. Whenever I parked outside Walgreen's or Wal-Mart, I would straddle the painted white line and take up two spaces. That way, you don't get dings. I hate dings. Dings bring down the value of the vehicle."
Cord Jefferson's "An Ode to a 'Poor Black Kid' I Never Knew: How Forbes Gets Poverty Wrong": "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."
Kelly Virella's "If I Were the Middle Class White Guy Gene Marks": "The economic and social policies that require black children to be 'special' to succeed in America made a lot of sense to the racist lawmakers who designed them during Reconstruction. When they sat down after the Civil War to decide how freed slaves and southern whites would interact, Congress explicitly rejected proposals to level the playing field between them, refusing to provide blacks with land, reparations, or equal education. They did not want to create actual equality between blacks and whites."
The Urban Scientist's "If I Were a Wealthy White Suburbanite": The nerve of him (and so many others) who think they can tell other people not only what's wrong with them, but also rattle off solutions as if it were as easy as casting seeds unto ground and like magic, new crops will sprout! Instantly. Effortlessly. Easy."
Ta-Nahisi Coates' "A Muscular Empathy": "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.' "
Rock and Roll Martian's "If I Was a Poor Black Kid, I'd Key Gene Marks' Car": "Right. Good grades are obviously super-attainable for me, the author's imaginary impoverished child. Never mind the fact that I'm going to an under-resourced school in an inner city where I'm competing with 30-40 kids for the attention of a teacher who works 12 hours a day for a yearly salary that would buckle under a used car payment. Never mind the fact that I'm likely a part of the 40 percent of American children who start school unprepared and never get the chance to catch up. Never mind that I'm 1.5 times more likely to have a learning disability, and have a significant chance of being unable to pass the standardized testing on which my school's already shoestring funding is based."
Baratunde Thurston's "A 'Poor Black Kid' Responds to Gene Marks": "I am a poor black kid. I don't have great parental or educational resources. I'm not as smart as your kids. These are facts. In 2011. The one smart thing I do every day is read Forbes. It's what all us poor black kids do. Forbes is constantly reporting on issues of relevance to me and my community. This week I found your article 'If I Were a Poor Black Kid' printed out and slid under my door like all Forbes articles."
Read more on The Root: Why Forbes' Column Crossed the Line.