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An Ode to a 'Poor Black Kid' I Never Knew: How Forbes Gets Poverty Wrong

Forbes writer Gene Marks today tells us what he'd do if he were destitute and black. Here's what a poor minority kid I knew did.

One of the best parts about being an educator's son is getting to hear all the crazy things your parent has to deal with courtesy of the "bad kids." I was a relatively mild-mannered student, thanks in large part to the fact that my mother, a teacher turned school administrator, had raised me to be. Even when she wasn't verbally doling out conduct lessons, I saw how an interaction with a mean or violent student would leave her frazzled at the end of a long day, and I knew I never wanted to inflict the same kind of torment on anyone else's mom or dad. Nevertheless, a gut instinct of youthful rebellion underpinned by hip-hop and Propagandhi always led me to inquire about the wild kids at my mom's schools, the ones who didn't just listen to punk, but who acted it as well.

It was in pursuit of one of these vicarious thrills that I asked my mom why she was so upset one day when I was about 12 years old. "Just something from today with a student," she said. I pestered her for more details, and she told me the story. A kid at her school—a primarily low-income, high-minority middle school serving sixth- through eighth-graders—was acting out. His outbursts were not normal, especially considering how young he was: He was rude, aggressive, destructive, foulmouthed, so angry. I remember my mom saying she was amazed at how much rage could fit into such a tiny body.

At first, the student's teachers tried putting him in timeout. When that didn't work, they escalated to trips to the principal's office. When those didn't work, he got detention after school. And when that didn't work either, they started sending him home. But when he'd return from a couple of days at home and immediately start tearing his classrooms apart, the suspensions grew to a week, two weeks.

Still nothing worked, and one day things got scary enough that my mom, accompanied by a police officer, felt it necessary to escort the student home to speak with his parents. When they got to his apartment about a mile away from the school, the weeks of mystery surrounding the boys' behavior were replaced with instant clarity. His mother, his only guardian, answered the door ashamedly, and out scurried a man, her most recent john.

After some talking and crying, the truth surfaced: The reason the "problem student" behaved so badly is because he knew that if his tantrums were chronic, he'd be sent home. And that was a good thing, because when he was home, his mother couldn't work as a prostitute. He couldn't tell any of his teachers this, of course, because then he'd run the risk of child welfare services taking him away from his mother, and he needed to be there to protect her. The boy never hated school, he just loved his mom more. This is how you get so much rage into such a tiny body.

I think about that little boy every time I read someone like Gene Marks, the Forbes writer behind "If I Was a Poor Black Kid," complain that minority children just aren't working hard enough. "If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible," writes Marks, a self-described middle-class white accountant. "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."

You find this sort of thing a lot among the white, moneyed, conservative set: "If only blacks and Latinos would work harder, they'd be fine." I don't think Marks and people who think like that are malicious, but I'd love to ask them how best to focus on your studies when all you can think about is the very real possibility that your mother is being assaulted in the bedroom where you're supposed to find sanctuary at night. How best to prioritize learning to read rigorously over scheming to get home and be the man of the house in the stead of the father who left? How best to find joy in school with so much hate and bitterness poisoning the rest of your life?

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. Content to generalize based on simplistic depictions of black poverty from TV and film, Marks believes that the only thing low-income minorities have to overcome is terrible teachers and a lack of technological knowledge; the rest of their problems stem from outright laziness. "If I was a poor black kid," writes Marks, "I’d become expert at Google Scholar." I'm not sure a more tone-deaf sentence has ever appeared in Forbes. To Marks, poor children exist in a vacuum where their only problem is poverty. In real life, poverty is a cloud that darkens every facet of a child's life, from his academic career to how he sleeps at night knowing his home is a brothel.

There are a huge number of resources available for Marks to read and watch to better understand the plight of poor minorities, and many of them can be found online. Alas, it seems that even he, a wealthy white professional, has yet to master Google Scholar.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Cornell University

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