I Was a Poor Black Kid
Well, not that poor. We lived in the hood, I saw some people shot and killed on my block and I had to eat spam and cheese sandwiches a lot as a kid but I’ve seen worse. Both of my parents were together and by the time we moved to the suburbs they both had advanced degrees. I was lucky enough to have a strong enough support system to keep me out of special ed classes when I was put in (dyslexia and behavioral issues) in schools that didn’t do well at handling Black students with issues. In general, I was lucky and ended up moving out of the situation in my adolescence. However, it forms enough of my experience, and I have lost enough friends and family to the evils of the inner city that it’s something that I can talk about first hand with real experience. Which is why the column in the Forbes technology section titled “If I Were a Poor Black Kid” struck a nerve with me. If you haven’t read it (I’ll wager most of you have), then give it a look.
To sum it up if you don’t like to read, it’s essential the columnist Gene Marks lamenting the gap between poor Blacks and rich Whites that is afforded seemingly by simple misfortune or fortune of birth. In the portion that dominates most of his essay, Marks describes what he believes he would do in order to succeed as a poor black kid, in a segment that sounds dangerously like the lectures we’ve heard from rich White folks ad nauseum about why we’re lazy and need to get jobs. He says it takes a special kind of kid to succeed, and eventually takes a swipe at his own prescriptions by acknowledging that it would be impossible for people without the prior knowledge that he already has of what it takes to succeed, such as his own kids, to succeed as poor black kids. He acknowledges that it’s unfair, but places the weight of the issue on lack of knowledge and doesn’t really have a solution outlined to his problem.
The internet is ablaze about it. There’s a lot of outrage about a guy who probably never has set foot in a neighborhood that wasn’t gated, especially given what he thinks are “easy” and “free” or even “available” technologies in Black communities, seemingly telling Black folks what he would do in their shoes to be more successful. There’s a lot of arrogance there, so it appears, especially in the unreasonable expectations he has for kids who, regardless of race, are such helpless creatures that if we don’t feed them and bathe them they die. Really, kids are like fucking Tamagotchis without an off switch.
However, I for one, think it’s at least a partially admirable move. While I think he’s dead wrong about most everything and displays a profound lack of even the most basic research skills (he could at least have watched an hour of BET before he wrote this), Marks does show a shift away from the unyielding and uncompromising premise that many really rich white men have regarding poor Black folks and poverty in general (i.e. “get a job, lazy niggers”). He actually does acknowledge that there are inherent obstacles to success in being poor and Black that aren’t present elsewhere. He says it’s not fair and acknowledges that you can’t expect normal kids (like his own) to make it there. Although most people read it as a heavy-handed, paternalistic “guide” to Black kids on how to succeed, it was a bit more subtle than that. Black kids don’t read Forbes. This was written squarely to rich white folks, who as a whole have probably given zero thought to the fact that it might be a bit more difficult for them to succeed in a different situation than they think. As far as attitudes among the upper crust go, this is a pretty big shift. I don’t give him much credit beyond that, because at the end of the day he’s not right and still is pretty paternalistic and stupid and offers no solution even for the merely proximal problem he identifies. But as far as what I expect from most rich White bloggers who even dare to consider the topic, it’s pretty revelatory.
I generally let the blogosphere handle the criticisms. Just go to twitter and search for it. But something else that really struck me about the context of this (a White man speaking from an ill-informed position on people he knows nothing about) was how common it is now that totally unqualified people are offering “advice” and “solutions” to Black problems under some paternalistic guise of being helpful. Perhaps due more to the lack of Black voices in the arena rather than an uptick of White ones, it’s happening a lot, and sometimes it’s not even from just White people. There’s a movie coming out written by the two white men who also wrote Friends With Benefits called Think Like a Man which is based on the eponymous self-help/relationships book for Black Women from Steve Harvey, a comedian with three marriages under his belt. That’s right, there’s a movie coming out written by two white men who may have recently written the whitest movie ever about Black women & relationships based on a work from a man with absolutely no credentials who racks up failed relationships like SkyMiles. And the main message is to think…..like a man.
It seems that giving advice to Black women is becoming a bit of a cottage industry among major news outlets and media. I’m pretty sure at this point that White readers of a lot of these outlets (I’m looking directly at the New York Times and WaPost here) think that all the Black women in America are engaged in a never-ending fist-fight over the only four straight college-educated Black men in the country. I’m pretty sure this overexposure affects us as well, and may tend to over exaggerate or exacerbate the relationship issues we do have. And it’s not just there. Every time I watch Skip Bayless debate someone on ESPN or Mike & Mike debate each other about whether race played a factor in some sporting event, I face palm myself. The white folks in my class love bringing up the infinite numbers of stats about Black men in prison. And of course everyone has an opinion about what to do with poor inner-city Black kids. Solving Black Problems is kinda the new “Free Tibet” to White folks.
But where are all the Black voices? There’s a smattering of bloggers out there and there’s Al Sharpton (competing with Mark Wahlberg for the world’s most shocking late-career reinvention), but aside from a very few commentators, most meaningful analysis of what’s going on in Black America is limited to “Black” media avenues and such (also, fuck Touré). While it’s partly a function of us having those venues now as vehicles, I’m tired of being force-fed BET and independent White commentary as my only real sources of any type of perspective on the problems in my community. Where are all the meaningful solutions to the Black men/Black women fissure that don’t completely overhype the issue or read as “niggas aint shit” or “women aint shit”? Where in the blogosphere are there constructive critiques? Where are Cornel West and his ilk writing detailed strategies for how to reduce the number of folks in jail?
Where’s the highly publicized editorials from Black leaders decrying the injustices of the Troy Davis case? Why are a few blogs like this one producing far more content about what it means to be Black in America than the Black leaders whose self-professed job it is to do so? And why are there so few Black leaders in the first place? I really think that our social consciousness has drifted away from a lot of the more important matters in our community. Part premature satisfaction or part frustration; I can’t explain it. I’m just certain that the lack of commentary from our own intelligentsia opens doors for more outsiders who don’t know shit about Black people to give advice. And that just makes us all the more vulnerable to taking that advice, especially in a world where a lot of our children look to the media in place of absent parents for how to be Black. In the end we get things like this, from guys like Marks who I am certain really thought in his heart he was doing something radical and good, that many times turn out to be nothing but incremental developments on the outdated viewpoint of the master.
We got a whole bunch of problems, and it’s time we actually fix them rather than leave the space for others to try for us.