What It's Really Like to Be a Poor Black Kid

After white middle-aged Forbes contributor Gene Marks described what he would do "If I Were a Poor Black Kid," the Internet has done a total takedown of the tone-deaf piece, giving Marks a better idea of what the world for actual poor black kids is like. 

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After white middle-aged Forbes contributor Gene Marks described what he would do "If I Were a Poor Black Kid," the Internet has done a total takedown of the tone-deaf piece, giving Marks a better idea of what the world for actual poor black kids is like. The grammatically incorrect column -- he abandons subjunctive after the headline -- takes readers through all the ways Marks would overcome poverty and racial discrimination. He begins: "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 No. 1 priority to be able to read sufficiently." The deluded preaching continues for two pages. The Internet via blogs, tweets and comments has chimed in to let Marks know how ridiculous he sounds.

The Web has diagnosed the following problems with Marks's column. He did not actually talk to any poor black kids. It's paternalistic. It doesn't address the real problems poor black kids faceIt assumes poor black kids don't work hard as a norm. It contains flawed logicAnd lastly Marks is pretty sure of his own gifts. The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates explains that last part well.

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, if we were slave masters our keen morality would have made us Bobby Carter, that were we poor and black our sense of Protestant industry would be a mighty power sending gang leaders, gang members, hunger, depression and sickle cell into flight. We flatter ourselves, not out of malice, but out of instinct.

Still, we are, in the main, ordinary people living in plush times. We are smart enough to get by, responsible enough to raise a couple of kids, thrifty to sock away for a vacation, and industrious enough to keep the lights on. We like our cars. We love a good cheeseburger. We'd die without air-conditioning. In the great mass of humanity that's ever lived, we are distinguished only by our creature comforts, but on the whole, mediocre.

That mediocrity is oft-exemplified by the claim that though we are unremarkable in this easy world, something about enslavement, degradation and poverty would make us exemplary. We can barely throw a left hook--but surely we would have beaten Mike Tyson

Many of these opinions come from "poor black kids" or people who know and talk to "poor black kids." It's just not as simple as Marks puts it. Here's what it's really like for these kids, from Coates, who describes his father's experience:

Let us not be hypothetical here. I am somewhat acquainted with a poor black kid from West Philly, and have been privileged to grapple with some of the details of his life. When he was six he came home from school and found his entire life out on the sidewalk. Eviction. He says he saw some of his stuff and immediately reversed direction out of utter humiliation. He spent the next couple of weeks living on a truck with his father, his aunt and brother. Everyday they'd search the trash for scrap to take to the yard for money. His father abused everyone in the family. He last saw his father alive when he was 9. At 17, convinced he would die if he stayed in Philly,he dropped out of high school and lied his way into a war.

From Karl Smith on the blog Modeled Behavior about his own experience:

In building this model one thing became glaring clear. The life choice that Mark’s outlines and that is advocated as prudent and reasonable by society is in fact incredibly risky.

I probably can’t convey the view-quakiness of this revelation because its now so entwined with the way I see the world. However, imagine the choice of a poor teenage girl deciding whether or not to have unprotected sex and possibly become pregnant, or to study hard, make good grades and stay in school ...

So, if the girl has unprotected sex she gets right here, right now, the most important and valuable thing in life will happen immediately with PROBABILTY ONE.

And from Kelly Virella at Dominion of New York:

The architects of equality before the law, or equality of opportunity, knew that it would only allow a few special black people to succeed, and shrugged their shoulders about the rest. As the Reverend Horace James, the former Superintendent of Negro Affairs in North Carolina, said in 1865, “Give the colored man equality, not of social condition, but equality before the law, and if he proves himself the superior of the Anglo Saxon, who can hinder it? If he falls below him, who can help it?” (Side note: lynch mobs were the south’s response to the question who can hinder successful black people.)

Even after all the negativity surrounding the entry, Marks might still consider the fete a success. Turns out this Forbes contributor likes to anger the Web. He also penned a blog titled "Steve Jobs Was A Jerk. Good For Him," immediately following the icon's death. His most recent piece of trollery hit Forbes Tuesday morning and now has over 237,000 page views and 42 pages of comments. And hey, things could've been worse. He could've claimed he was a poor black child:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.