Equity & Diversity

White Accountant Has All the Answers for Poor Black Kids

By Liana Loewus — December 15, 2011 1 min read
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Gene Marks, a public accountant who writes about the business of technology, recently posted an item on Forbes’ site entitled “If I Were a Poor Black Kid.” Marks, as he discloses upfront, is actually a middle-aged white man from a middle-class upbringing. I think it might be about time for some self-identified teachers to jump into the feeding frenzy—excuse me—discussion that the post has generated. (I’m fairly certain teachers will have comments on more than just the ungrammatical first sentence below.)

In the piece, Marks writes:

If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. 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. And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities. Getting good grades is the key to having more options. With good grades you can choose different, better paths.

He goes on to explain that, as a poor black kid, he would become a technology expert, using tools like Google Scholar, SparkNotes, TED, Skype, and Khan Academy to further his studies. He’d get into a nationally recognized magnet school or find a scholarship to a private school. He’d befriend his guidance counselor and get help finding a prestigious summer job. All in all, he’d simply work hard. According to Marks, the opportunities are there for kids who want help and “are smart enough to go for it.”

The response to the post has been, well, vehement. In a letter on Time.com, author and TV host Toure calls Marks “clueless” and the piece a “condescending, paternalistic and simplistic little essay” that ignores the challenges of racism.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor for The Atlantic, writes that Marks, like many people today, suffers from “benevolent, and admittedly unintentional, self-aggrandizement.”

It is comforting to believe that we, through our sheer will, could transcend these bindings—to believe that if we were slaves, our indomitable courage would have made us Frederick Douglass...

GOOD Senior editor Cord Jefferson says that Marks makes “tone-deaf” generalizations and that his ill-informed assumptions lead him to insinuate that poor black kids’ problems stem mainly from laziness.

Many of the comments on the original piece on the Forbes site are supportive of Marks’ views, and the author has chimed in every so often to stand by his words as well. But perhaps fellow Forbes blogger Kashmir Hill has the most convincing explanation for Marks’ inflammatory post when she notes that Forbes pays its contributors by the number of visitors they bring to the site.

As a classroom insider, how do you react to Marks’ words? Is he voicing a realistic albeit tough-love solution for kids in West Philly who want to escape poverty? Or is Marks in desperate need of cultural responsiveness training?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.