Friday, December 16, 2011

Finding some Positives in Gene Marks' "Poor Black Kid"

There are plenty of people taking issue with Gene Marks' privilege-ridden, naive, and completely out-of-touch Forbes article "If I Were a Poor Black Kid."

See, Marks was inspired by Obama's speech and laid out a fool-proof (though, he admits, "hard") plan for success, even for those poor black kids who must have just missed this message in the past. His advice consists of plenty of gems, including:

  • I’d become expert at Google Scholar.   I’d visit study sites like SparkNotes and CliffsNotes to help me understand books. 
  • I would use Skype to study with other students who also want to do well in my school.  I would take advantage of study websites like Evernote, Study Rails, Flashcard Machine, Quizlet, and free online calculators.
  • I would use the internet to research each one of these schools [high-performing charter schools] so I could find out how I could be admitted.  I would find out the names of the admissions people and go to meet with them.
  • [On getting discounted admission to private schools]: Trust me, they want to show diversity.  They want to show smiling, smart kids of many different colors and races on their fundraising brochures.
  • Technology can help these kids.  But only if the kids want to be helped. 
Even if all of these "poor black kids" to whom Marks is doling out wisdom had access to computers (which is a big assumption), it would have to be a lot of access. Marks is suggesting that these kids learn how to navigate several different online sites; that would take a lot more than an hour a day of computer access that they might get in school. That takes computers at home. That takes reliable internet connections.  For many children in under-performing school districts, these things are unlikely. And although Marks purports to have an answer--free computer programs for disadvantaged kids--there's no way that's an answer for everyone and even getting access to those programs to begin with is going to be hard without those initial resources.

But even if they had those, Marks suggestions are still out of touch because they assume a level of media literacy that I don't see in my freshmen college student--and I teach at an expensive private school. Determining which websites are actually helpful and which ones aren't, figuring out how to use all of those sites simultaneously and effectively, setting up systems of study skills, organizing data--those are not skills that most kids have. Do you know how kids who do get those skills acquire them (usually)? They have parents who have those skills, and they see them over time. They watch their parents use those tools and they are introduced to them in stages, beginning at a young age. It's part of their culture.

Marks suggestions continue to be out of touch because all of his goals revolve around getting these kids into college. But college--while it may be a step in the process--is not the answer. College does not bestow any magical talisman of success upon its graduates. And mere college admission does not erase years of educational inequalities and racial and socioeconomic performance disparities. 

This is why I was actually happy to see Marks' article. I'm happy to see the backlash, and I'm happy to see this ridiculous opinion laid out in such plain terms. 

We talk a lot about closing performance gaps in our education policies. We talk a lot about maintaining Pell Grant amounts (which is important) and providing access to college. Essentially, this is what Marks is talking about, too. "Here kids," he seems to be saying, "here's a list of the things you need. Go get them." A list of information (or even an admission to a college) is not enough to replace a cultural background lacking cultural information. 

I was a first-generation college student, and I did a lot of things wrong. I made a lot of mistakes because I had no one in my family to give me guidance on how to do it better. Now I work with other students from first-generation, low-income, and other backgrounds underrepresented in college. I see everyday that these students are capable, intelligent, and hard-working. They don't need a list of websites. They need advocates, mentors, and guides to help them transition through a new cultural landscape. And that's something that takes dedication, time, and compassion--all the things missing from Marks' approach. 


  1. You've touched on many points that came to mind as I read Marks' self-aggrandizing how-to for poor black kids - most especially his obtuse, view-from-above assumption that technology & the ability to learn technology is equally available to all.

    Another thing that came to mind was how Marks & people like him always begin these types of 'helpful' dialogues about minorities with 2 assumptions that could not be more incorrect:

    1. the assumption that systemic racism either does not exist, or is not enough of an issue to address

    2. that minorities begin on an even playing field with the white majority, and therefore have the same chance/opportunities in their struggle toward the American Dream

    Marks' article reads like most articles of this ilk written by majority members of society about minority members of society: ignorant, arrogant, and insensitive.

  2. Wow! The first thing that comes to mind is "what a f**king twat". The second is that the first step in all of this is to feel like you are a valued and valuable person. I think that is the key reason why some people manage to succeed against the odds. But it's the rare parent/significant adult who can make a child feel valuable and valued when the entire rest of the world is telling them they're not worth investing in.