Wednesday, December 14, 2011

If I Were A Poor Black Kid

You know, I really wanted to lead this off with a hypothetical situation in response to Gene Marks's privileged and incredibly condescending article "If I Were A Poor Black Kid." I was going to illustrate structural racism through the situation of an actual poor black kid faced with that reality. Then, I remembered why the original article was pernicious and awful on its face: like Marks, I am not a poor black kid. Yeah, I grew up economically disadvantaged in some ways but my parents made alright money. Plus, I'm white, so I had that privilege going for me.

Much ballyhoo has been made over addressing the patent ignorance in this article. But, reading it, I imagined many of my white friends going, "I don't get what's wrong with this... these all sound like good points to me." The article is the same 'gumption and work ethic' snake oil that the rich/successful among us peddle when they've lost all perspective on their life and the world around them. It presupposes that rosy, Hanna Barbara idealism that we're all really equal anyways, and we're only put down by bigotry and poverty when we let ourselves be.

The article isn't really to black kids, no. Although Marks may have thought of himself as dispensing the sacred wisdom of the successful to those poor, unfortunate proles not seeing themselves as future Forbes writers, there's a deeper reason that articles like this are written. Poor black kids don't read Forbes. This article is the privileged, the financially successful, to remind them that they got to where they were purely on their own hard work and merit. This article is to swaddle the wealthier among us, to assuage them that they do not sit high within an economic system that constantly disenfranchises the poor.

It's telling that he admits a few times that he doesn't know what he's talking about. What's more telling is that he does not explore that. Has he talked to a poor black kid? Has he talked to a poor any kid? Why not Latino, or East Asian, or Indian, or even a poor white person? Has he explored how people of color are oppressed through differential law enforcement, and immigration law, and the myriad social institutions that white people take for granted? Has he gone into any of these difficult urban schools to talk to any actual kids?

No, of course not. Being blind to privilege means that you don't accept being underprivileged as a barrier, because you cannot conceive that society has given you opportunities based on something you cannot help. White privilege, male privilege, hetero/cis privilege, ableist privilege, all of them function so that those with privilege see themselves as inherently 'normal', 'baseline' people whose success shows that obviously, anyone who uses inequality as an explanation against success is just blaming the successful for their failure.

Let's talk about structural racism. A poor black kid is more likely to be suspended or arrested than white kids committing similar offenses. A poor black kid is more likely to access the internet via phone, than computer. Standardized tests, like the SAT, favor white people by use of white vernacular. Your schools are likely to be less funded, and closer to prisons than places of learning. The educational system is based on hammering the achievements of White America into you K-12, to further remind you that black people have only been passive in the construction of the nation, and that you're truly helpless to do anything about it.

Factor in the decades of practically non-existent social mobility, a welfare system that doesn't exist to really benefit you, and an indifferent world outside, and see that the faults are without, rather than within, you.

Of course, Forbes isn't the place for this critical writing. Forbes lists successful business people. Forbes is what people read to congratulate themselves on having won the privilege lottery. The audience for this article walked away from it with relief, having been reminded of the myth of American Meritocracy.

1 comment:

  1. I do not think I could have stated this better myself, Mike.
    Furthermore, poor black kids don't have the academic tools (or a subscription to Forbes, for that matter) to put people like Marks in his place. So it is easy for Marks and people like him to further pat themselves on the back for such racism.