Gene Marks, Drawn and Quartered

Gene Marks, a self-professed “middle aged white guy from a middle class white background,” shared his oh-so-insightful opinions on what he would do were he a low-income black student. The article was published in Forbes magazine (i.e. porn for capitalists) and has since rightly taken on a storm of protest and criticism.

“It takes brains. It takes hard work. It takes a little luck. And a little help from others. It takes the ability and the know-how to use the resources that are available. Like technology. As a person who sells and has worked with technology all my life I also know this. 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.”

Where do I even begin? The ignorance? The racism? The uniquely American blindness with which Marks approaches the issue of young black men and women not receiving what many privileged [white] students ultimately take for granted?

Gene Marks is not a ‘poor black kid.’ Far from it. He has no right to make judgments about what ‘he would do’ because, thanks to centuries of racial hegemony, he has not and never will have to even think about being in that situation in the first place- which he concedes to, but (not surprisingly) refrains from admitting that he might, in effect, be holistically wrong as a function of the inherently biased perspective he thus assumes.

Marks clearly knows nothing about the education system (or indeed society in general) if he is under the impression that education works insofar as ‘the kids want to help themselves.’ Kids often find themselves far from their dreams not necessarily because they as individuals have failed to ‘work hard’ for those goals, but because of the institutions and adults (like Marks) who submerge them in positions of intellectual and professional inferiority. “It takes a little help from others.” No, sunshine, it takes a LOT of help from others, who incidentally are the same people (like yourself) who would rather blame students than help them.

And these resources he speaks of? Sorry, dude- not all schools (let alone households) in America have access to computers. Sure, computers can be ‘cheaply acquired,’ but ‘cheaply’ by whose standards? Yours? Sure, there are scholarships. But just because they exist doesn’t mean they’re given to the people who need them. The alleged existence of  ‘more opportunities’ for minority students doesn’t mean they’re any less limited.

There are myriad factors that go into determining who does or does not ‘make it’ in American society. It’s not as simple as ‘he who works hardest succeeds.’ My god, man. Take an anthropology or history class; and while you’re at it, go ahead and take a WAGS class because you probably think rape victims similarly should have ‘worked harder’ to resist their attackers.

This mindset – the idea of individual agency prevailing over all other factors (all of which remain ignored by Marks)- is painfully American. A lot of people in this country also feel that way about the growing numbers of American homeless, that if they just ‘worked harder’ they would rise above their current situation. Marks half-heartedly admits (probably at the request of an editor) that this country is teeming with inequality but fails to own up to his own role in perpetuating that inequality by making sweeping, categorically whack statements about things he clearly doesn’t understand even on a remotely juvenile level.

Historically embedded conceptions of race and money (among other things), i.e. hegemonic circumstances, have prevented intelligent, hard working students (and indeed minorities at large) from ‘succeeding.’ The extent to which Marks is in denial about this is sickening. Thankfully I’m not the only one to lash out against him.

From Ta-Nehisi Coates,
“If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity. The first rule is this–You are not extraordinary. It’s all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it’s much more interesting to assume that you wouldn’t and then ask “Why?”

(Inferiority complexes, psychical projection and other psychoanalytic techniques are extremely valuable in racist situations like these)

From Cord Jefferson,
“There’s a lot wrong with “If I Was a Poor Black Kid,” not the least of which is the grammar in the title. But the biggest issue with the piece and everything like it is that it assumes being poor and black are the only two things on poor black kids’ plates.”**

(** I would go further than this and suggest that Marks also implies that intellectual deficiency, or ‘laziness’ is a necessary footnote to the experience of a young minority student.)

From Akiba Solomon,
“Marks could have used technology himself and Googled a few of the structural barriers he glances past. In just the past couple of months we’ve seen news that black students get suspended at a far higher rate for the same infractions as white students; that all but four of the students NYPD arrested this summer and fall were black or Latino; and that those poor black kids who evade the police-state in their schools and make it to college aren’t finding Marks’s easy-grab scholarships, since one in three of them owe more than $38,000.”

I urge Marks to take a serious look at the damage he’s done by writing this piece. I’m also officially calling for a public apology, not only for offending so many people and ignoring so much about the reality of life (past and present) in America, but also for wasting his freedom of speech to justify collectively held beliefs that plague this country, its education system, and the students who end up suffering from the mistakes of racist, ignorant adults.