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Louis Peitzman

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If I Were a Middle Aged White Man

Posted: 12/13/11 05:03 PM ET

If I were a middle aged white man, I wouldn't write articles called "If I Were a Poor Black Kid" for Forbes. With a title like that, it wouldn't matter what points I was making. You are not a poor black kid, tech writer Gene Marks -- you never were, and you never will be. The problem with this hypothetical is that a middle aged white person lacks the necessary context to begin understanding what it means to be a poor black kid. You know only what you would do with your means -- it's easy to imagine how you could be "better" at being a poor black kid when you're doing so from your privileged, middle aged white male perspective.

I imagine the title of Marks' piece was designed to draw attention to it, and yes, controversy does equal page views. So, you know, kudos. But it's shocking to me that neither Marks nor his editors at Forbes realized the inflammatory nature of the article detracts from any legitimate points the author might be making. If the attempt were to write a piece about how technology can help students bridge the inequality gap, that's short-sighted but it's arguably worthy of discussion. A piece about what Gene Marks would do if he were a poor black kid -- that's a whole lot easier to dismiss.

If I were a middle aged white man, I wouldn't write, "If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. ... I wouldn't care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city." Because no, it's not just as simple as studying hard. The worst schools may have their best students, as Marks notes, but the challenges those students face far outweigh the challenges of students in more privileged suburban schools. Marks did not go to a public middle school in the worst inner city, so maybe he doesn't know that those schools are frequently understaffed and always underfunded. Certainly he didn't consider that the socioeconomic conditions facing the students who attend these schools might make it more difficult for them to focus on their studies, as he humbly suggests they do.

Marks continues, "I would use the technology available to me as a student. I know a few school teachers and they tell me that many inner city parents usually have or can afford cheap computers and internet service nowadays." And for the inner city parents who can't afford cheap computers and Internet service? Will Marks be inviting them into his home to use SparkNotes and Wikipedia? (These are seriously two of the great equalizing tools he recommends.) Or perhaps there is more than one student living in the same house, and they have to share one computer between them and their parents. I wonder if Marks has ever had to pass his iPad over to a sibling or parent before he was finished using it. If the parents don't own a computer, Marks notes that students can use the computers at their school libraries -- because despite being government institutions in serious financial distress, they can surely afford enough technology to go around, right?

If I were a middle aged white man, I wouldn't write, "Is this easy? No it's not. It's hard. ... But it's not impossible." Here are some other things that aren't impossible: climbing Mount Everest, inventing Facebook, winning the lottery. And lest you think "winning the lottery" is an unfair comparison, Marks goes on to discuss magnet schools and charter schools, which -- as it turns out -- sometimes use a lottery system to sift through the thousands of students who want to attend. Either way, saying that something is "hard," even acknowledging that it's harder for a "poor black kid," is a cop-out. How does Marks quantify how much harder it might be for someone not born into privilege? He doesn't. He just notes that someone can. The implication of the article's title is that he himself could, if he happened to be poor and black and growing up in an inner city.

Once in these schools, Marks suggests that students talk to their guidance counselors about scholarship opportunities and minority programs. What Marks may not realize is that higher education is a seriously troubled institution as well. Public schools once designed to give everyone the chance to attend college continue to raise tuition by the thousands. And in the current economic market, a college degree doesn't guarantee employment, so the implication that just by getting into these universities, the former "poor black kid" will be set for life is ridiculous. He might have trouble obtaining the kind of job he'd need to pay off the student loans he'd certainly accrue. (Not all schools offer need-based scholarships. Chances are, a student born into poverty is going to be indebted to someone before he's graduated college.) And need I address the elephant in the room? That a culture of racism and white privilege might make it more difficult for a young black man to get a job over a young white man with the same skills and educational background.

If I were a middle aged white man, I wouldn't write, "If I was a poor black kid I would get technical. I would learn software. I would learn how to write code." I am a twentysomething white person, and I am terrible at software and code and technology in general. I don't consider it a personal failing, and no one has ever told me I'm not worthy of success because it's not in my skill set. Marks seems to be saying that "poor black kids" should neglect their interests and strengths and focus entirely on technology, something he himself has had luck with. And sure, there may be more jobs in the tech sector, but the notion that the underprivileged kids Marks writes about need only sacrifice their personal life goals in favor of "practical" skills is absurd and insulting.

Marks continues with this stunningly ignorant final thought: "Technology can help these kids. But only if the kids want to be helped. Yes, there is much inequality. But the opportunity is still there in this country for those that are smart enough to go for it." If solving inequality were as simple as wanting it badly enough, I'd like to think we'd all be equal. Who in his right mind would put himself at a severe disadvantage? The economic and social disparity in this county has less to do with apathy than Marks might think. Being "smart enough" to know about the resources Marks identifies doesn't mean having access to them--and having access to the resources doesn't guarantee success.

I'll put it this way: If I were Gene Marks, I'd be ashamed of myself.

Read more from Louis at 15 Layers of Irony.

 

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