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'Poor Black Kids' Should Work Harder To Escape Poverty, Says Forbes Writer

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Did you ever stop to wonder what life would be like for you if you were a poor black kid? Here's a hint: you probably wouldn't be allowed to write about your feelings on the matter for Forbes! Or get a reporter from Forbes to travel to where you live to ask what it's actually like, because where's the currency in having access to poor black children? So, we are apparently left with the musings of self-professed "middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background" Gene Marks, who writes about "the business of technology" and really should have stuck to that. He says that if he were a poor black kid, he'd just work harder and use CliffsNotes and popular web apps to, you know, conquer the grinding world of institutionalized poverty.

Why haven't all the poor black kids thought of this?

To be fair, Marks says it's "not fair" that kids in poor, inner-city neighborhoods don't have the same advantages as his own kids. I mean, you don't say? As far as solutions go, however, the only ones that Marks has to offer make me think of the new Hayes Carll album, "KMAG YOYO," which stands for, "Kiss my ass, guys, you're on your own."

If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently. I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city. Even the worst have their best. And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities. Getting good grades is the key to having more options. With good grades you can choose different, better paths. If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have.

Something about the use of the phrase "better paths" got my own middle-aged white guy brain thinking back to when I was in the twelfth grade, and I could take a "better path" any day of my life by riding my bicycle across town to the Reston Regional Library (which happened to be located to the cleanest and most bucolic homeless shelter you ever did see). Once there, I could lock my bike to the rack just off the clean and expansive parking lot, walk into the quiet and well-appointed library, and study for hours on end.

And I still vividly remember the day I was there, on an assignment for my AP Government class for which I had decided to delve into issues of poverty. I learned some things that have stuck with me. For instance, in the late 1970s, the residential density in certain parts of poorer New York City was so high, that if the entire city chose to live in such close quarters, all New York City residents would be able to fit themselves into one of the five boroughs. I also learned that living in crowded tenement buildings had adverse effects on educational attainment -- kids didn't have a room to spread out and study or read for fun. They shared cramped space with family members, a situation that bred distraction and noise and made it difficult to concentrate. And that's before we account for the rats, the poor upkeep, the slumlords, and the lack of heat.

I have a vivid memory of sitting in that library, learning these things, because that was the precise instant in my life where I became interested in politics.

I couldn't help but focus on the fundamental differences between my life and the lives that were being described to me in those books. I was actually very fortunate to have the opportunity to be able to get on my bike and travel a few miles to a library. The bike paths were well maintained, and I didn't have to proceed through crime infested city blocks. At home, I had a room of my own, my own desk, my own bookshelves -- and I knew that even these didn't come from nothing. I spent my childhood knowing full well that we were a single income household that managed to scrimp and save our way into a suburban existence, to which we clung for dear life.

The point is, when I was working hard to "get the best grades possible" and be one of the "very best students" at one of the best school districts in the United States, that hard work led me to understand that I was very, very, very, very lucky. I probably should not have been allowed to graduate from high school without understanding this fundamental fact.

And Marks' argument about the means by which these children -- they are children! -- can scale the heights of the barriers between them and success just seems specious. They can use websites and education apps, sure? But who's kitting these kids out with laptops and iPads? Who's paying for internet access at home? How many meals and prescription drugs should be sacrificed so that poor black kids can use Evernote and Skype and the Wikipedia? Or are mom and dad taking second jobs at nights to pay for that? Hey, that's the sign of a good parent, making those sacrifices. Tell you something though, both of my parents had the luxury of getting to come home at night. From an educational perspective, that environment could not be beat.

But if you work hard, Marks points out, there are opportunities. Like scholarships to good private schools whose boards of trustees "want to show smiling, smart kids of many different colors and races on their fundraising brochures." That's great! You know, thank God for the shame that these boards of trustees feel in the way they've larded their pockets proving in the main that they can educate the best students on hand. May that shame ever sear their souls, so that a few poor black kids make it over the barrier. Of course, for every kid who works hard to earn a scholarship, there's a kid who works hard and doesn't earn a scholarship.

Some of those kids have other options, as Marks points out:

In Philadelphia, there are nationally recognized magnet schools like Central, Girls High and Masterman. These schools are free. But they are hard to get in to. You need good grades and good test scores. And there are also other good magnet and charter schools in the city. You also need good grades to get into those.

But these kids are already working hard and earning good grades! This isn't a solution to the problem, it's a reward. The key difference is that when I worked hard and earned good grades at South Lakes High School in the 80s, I didn't have to go anywhere else.

But beyond all that, Marks is essentially pimping this gloriously condescending idea that these kids' failings are just the result of their unwillingness to try to work hard. There's not much of a hint in his article that there are external factors of any kind bearing down on these children, and that much of the time, these external factors are too much for a child to surmount on his or her own.

Let me relate to you the story of a kid who, to my thinking, really worked hard before the reality of being a poor black kid finally crushed him. In March of 2004, the Washington City Paper wrote about Thomas “T.J.” Boykin, a senior at Ballou High School in the District of Columbia. According to the paper, T.J. was "mannerly toward his teachers ... the quiet kid, the one with no rap sheet." He "didn't wear flashy clothes," he "got decent grades but never straight A’s," and his simple goal was to graduate.

Here's how his senior year began:

T.J., like about 100 members of Ballou’s student body, didn’t receive a schedule on the first day of school. Nor the second. Nor even the fifth. Administrators blamed a computer virus. Instead of sending the children into classrooms with their peers, the school warehoused them in the cafeteria.

So T.J.’s routine went like this: He woke up at 6:30 a.m. and boarded a Metrobus that would take him out of the Barry Farm Dwellings for the 15-minute ride to Ballou, in Congress Heights. Then he took his place at a lunch table. “I didn’t do anything,” T.J. says of his cafeteria limbo. “I waited around.”

T.J. kept hoping an administrator would pop into the cafeteria any minute with his schedule. By Week 2, the cafeteria scene had turned into a test of patience. No homework, no books, no pop quizzes. The curriculum consisted of playing Spades, eating Doritos, guzzling Mountain Dews, talking about football, shooting air hoops, wrestling, slapping high fives, gossiping, and running around. Each period came and went, marked only by the rotation of teachers charged with baby-sitting T.J. and the rest. There was little effort to turn the mess hall into a study hall.

Boykin didn't get his class schedule until November, despite the intervention of his mother. And I'm having the same reaction to this today as I did when I read this story back in 2004 -- it is simply inconceivable for people who had the good fortune to grow up where I grew up to contemplate the possibility that their class schedules would not be set the day they showed up on the first day of school. We took this for granted. For all we knew, this task was performed by the Keebler Elves. And many of the other struggles that Boykin faced were similarly inconceivable, especially the vicious inter-neighborhood rivalry between the children from Boykin's housing project, Barry Farms, and another dwelling known as Condon Terrace -- a rivalry that often expressed itself in fatal gang-related violence.

This was all stuff that Boykin was trying to keep clear of -- the inability to get a class schedule into his hands did not help. Still, Boykin strove in whatever area in which he found an opportunity. For him, it was music, and while you are free to disagree that writing beats and raps is the best use of a young man's time, the diligence with which he pursued the work is evidence of the fact that he was willing to fill the vacuum in his life with some hard work.

Unfortunately, Boykin's story ends tragically. Relentlessly bullied at his school, he eventually could not take it anymore and turned on his tormentors with a gun, killing one of them. He subsequently turned himself in to police and was incarcerated for his crime. The City Paper's account leaves Boykin hoping that he could get back to school: “That’s a real big thing on my list. Graduating and going to college.”

It seems to me that there were many adults in Boykin's life -- from school administrators who couldn't do the basics of their jobs to the school security staff who were universally hailed to be "a joke" -- who failed to work hard at their jobs, and thus failed this child. You're free to disagree with this sentiment, and you're free to assert that no matter how bad things got for you, you wouldn't have committed a crime in response. On the latter matter, believe me, I hope that's true!

But I don't think that you have the standing to judge what life is like for a "poor black kid" unless you actually demonstrate a basic understanding -- either through data or anecdotally -- what it's actually like for "poor black kids." And you certainly should resist the temptation to mansplain to everybody what you would have done differently. For his inability to consider life beyond his own prism of privilege, and suggesting that a bad-ass array of trendy tablet apps is all a child needs to circumvent the crushing reality of his surroundings, I give Mr. Marks a failing grade.

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