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If I Was A Poor Black Kid? Are You Serious?

Yesterday, I read a truly disturbing article written by Gene Marks, a business and technology contributor for Forbes Magazine. The article entitled, “If I was a Poor Black Kid” laid out what Marks believed to be the panacea to the inequalities facing poor Black youth in the United States. Marks’ naïve remedy consisted of taking advanced coding classes, exploiting information technology, and making good grades. If it were really that easy, the dearth of Black entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley would be but a faint memory, and smart Black kids everywhere would be bursting down the doors of this nation’s most elite universities. Unfortunately, utopia can’t exist in a nation where the poverty rate for Black children is 34% more than twice that of Whites. It can’t exist in a nation where Black youth comprise 40% of juveniles in public and private residential custody facilities. It can’t exist in a nation where the majority of Black youth use the emergency room as their primary care center.

Some may say that I’m perpetuating the victimized narrative that so many minorities cling onto, rather than using their agency to improve their situation. I say to them, au contraire. When people like Gene Marks lay out a litany of simplistic suggestions on how Black kids can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps without critically reflecting on his own privilege, I can’t help but call him out.

Marks says that if he were a poor, Black kid, “[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.” What Mr. Marks fails to take into account is the fact that many of the brightest Black students at underperforming schools lack college or career counseling. Moreover, the limited access or exposure to resources like Jstor or Google Scholar makes the learning curve much steeper. In many cases, students who already felt failed by a separate and unequal system are less likely to have drive even when they make straight A’s.

Another key aspect of Mr. Mark’s argument that seems porous to me is his fixation with exploiting information technology. Let me be clear, I’m one the biggest proponents of using information technology to level the playing field for disadvantaged groups. In fact, I think the Black Youth Project does a phenomenal job of giving young people of color an outlet to express themselves and increase their civic engagement through their digital acitivty. With that said, the digital divide and the lack of understanding of technology among poor folks is in this country is very real. Sure, Sparknotes, Cliffnotes, and Wikipedia are great resources, but when your family doesn’t have broadband or even dial-up it makes it hard for you to take advantage of all the educational tools that he recommends.

Marks then goes on to say that on top of good grades, poor Black kids need good test scores. The last time I checked the SAT and ACT weren’t intuitive test that examined raw intelligence. In fact, many education scholars argue that they merely test your ability to take a test. To master this, students must somehow get access to test prep materials which are often very costly. Additionally, students could benefit from having an SAT/ACT tutor to drill them on the most important concepts. Unfortunately, many poor families can’t afford to pay the high price for SAT/ACT prep.

On both sides of the aisle, political elites continue to spew Horatio Alger rhetoric like “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” without addressing the overall institutional barriers that hinder so many young people of color from having a decent quality of life. Yes, personal motivation is always a factor that has to be accounted for when trying to understand self or group advancement. However, the disparate access to vital resources in disadvantaged communities and the over-surveillance by law enforcement in these same areas continues to normalize what the scapegoat should look like instead of getting to the root of the problem.

If you would like to have a conversation with me about this article feel free to reach out to me via Twitter @edwardelliot