Friday, February 3, 2012

Media Moments, "If I Were A Poor Black Kid"

On December 12, 2011, Forbes magazine online published a column from Gene Marks, a self described "middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background." The essay was titled: "If I Were A Poor Black Kid" and contained a list of advice for poor black kids on how to make it in America.

"I would use Skype to study with other students who also want to do well in my school," was one suggestion from Marks. Because, obviously, all poor families have computers and high speed internet at home.

Marks also encourage black kids to capitalize on rich white people's desire for tokenized diversity.

"Most private schools I know are filled to the brim with the 1%," writes Marks. "That’s because these schools are exclusive and expensive, costing anywhere between $20 and $50k per year. But there’s a secret about them. Most have scholarship programs. Most have boards of trustees that want to give opportunities to kids that can’t afford the tuition . . . Trust me, they want to show diversity. They want to show smiling, smart kids of many different colors and races on their fundraising brochures."

According to Marks, following this roadmap of technology, good grades, and scholarships will inevitably lead to success. He concludes: "Because a poor black kid who gets good grades, has a part time job and becomes proficient with a technical skill will go to college. There is financial aid available. There are programs available. And no matter what he or she majors in that person will have opportunities. They will find jobs in a country of business owners like me who are starved for smart, skilled people. They will succeed."

Well, I guess that's it. Gene Marks, an accountant, Forbes magazine contributor, and middle class white guy has just solved the problem of racial inequality and lack of access to opportunity and education.

Though the patneralism of the article is blatant, it is not particularly suprising. This type of thinking is common in the American pysche, even if it is not always so obviously stated. So what happened when a Forbes columnist solved the centuries-old problem of racial inequality on the internet? Did the poor black children of America reply with a collective, "Thank you!"? Did people ignore this column, since there is way too much opinion-spouting on the internet anyway? Not quite.

The response was swift, sharp and prolific. Writing for The Root Elon James White replied with incredulousness and sarcasm:

"Mr. Gene just wants to give us some of that patented #WhiteLove™ that he has laying around the house. With a healthy sprinkling, poor ignorant black children can rise above their station into the magical world of reasonable participation in society!"

White continued, "How in the world can this man create this checklist of things and not realize that he's requesting that kids do something extraordinary simply to not continue to be in poverty: forget their surroundings.Forget any issues with their parents, the issues their parents might have, like perhaps not eating every night. Forget poor schools with overcrowded classrooms and teachers who can barely keep the class together. School systems that pass children along because they simply can't keep them."

More excellent responses came from Akiba Solomon in COLORLINES, Cord Jefferson writing for Good, and a satirical response in the Atlantic called, "If I Were a Middle-Aged White Guy."

The response to the column even became news itself -- with NPR doing a story on the controversey.

The success of this story was, in my opnion, the public shaming of Gene marks. The absurdity of his opinions were ripped open, he was mocked, and even Memed. Gene Marks is, at least on the internet, a bit of a joke. But does being mocked online have ramifications outside of the virtual world? Did these responses open up a critical conversation about opportunity and race? Or did they only circulate in a small online world, moving through like-minded circles?

My question for the class is: how does the case of "If I Were a Poor Black Kid" and Gene Marks relate to our study of gender and the media? What does this case tell us about assumptions of priviledge? If you want to think about this a little more, check out another column written by Marks -- "Why most women will never become CEOS."

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