An estimated 16 million children live in poverty in the U.S of A. And Mr. Gene Marks, the author of a December 12, 2011 Forbes article entitled “If I were a Poor Black Kid,” would like to convince us that the solution to this problem, especially for black children in poverty is to alleviate their own ignorance. He begins and ends his article by citing President Obama’s December 6, 2011 Kansas City Speech on the economy in which he addressed inequality in America. Marks speaks through both sides of his mouth:
President Obama was right in his speech last week. The division between rich and poor is a national problem. But the biggest challenge we face isn’t inequality. It’s ignorance. So many kids from West Philadelphia don’t even know these opportunities exist for them. Many come from single-parent families whose mom or dad (or in many cases their grand mom) is working two jobs to survive and are just (understandably) too plain tired to do anything else in the few short hours they’re home. Many have teachers who are overburdened and too stressed to find the time to help every kid that needs it. Many of these kids don’t have the brains to figure this out themselves – like my kids. Except that my kids are just lucky enough to have parents and a well-funded school system around to push them in the right direction….Technology can help these kids. But only if the kids want to be helped. Yes, there is much inequality. But the opportunity is still there in this country for those that are smart enough to go for it.
Where do I start debunking the bunk? Mr. Marks places the burden for the children’s own education on the children themselves, regardless of age. He would make it his number one priority, as “a poor black kid,” to “read sufficiently” (sufficiently for what?). Reading literacy, which Mr. Marks rightly places a high premium on to become a good student and achieving success, must occur early in a child’s education. Reading basics begin in kindergarten and first grade. Mr. Marks states that the big challenge poor children face is not inequality but ignorance. Whose ignorance? It is the children’s ignorance according to Mr. Marks. All poor black children’s parents are busy or overburdened, so the children must assume the burden of correcting their own ignorance and thereby transcending inequality. When technology is not as readily or equally available in the schools poor black children attend as it is in the schools middle and upper class white children attend, we are talking about inequality, Mr. Marks.
Mr. Marks writes, “I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed.” But I believe the point is to provide, as much as possible, a level playing field so that everyone in this country has the same chance at succeeding in this country. I don’t believe it will ever be completely level. We cannot force people to be fair nor can we erase racism from people’s hearts and minds. But we can do our best to put into place school systems that are more equal in terms of quality of teachers, teacher’s pay, facilities, books, and equipment. If our urban schools where most poor children attend are suffering because of white and black flight and consequent loss of tax dollars, then we need to find a way to replace those dollars.
“It takes brains. It takes hard work,” Marks argues. I am assuming that by brains he means access to quality education, since he does admit that his children are no more capable than poor black children. Indeed, unless a child suffers from a physical challenge, all children are capable of excelling; none are born with brains inferior to others because of race, socio-economic status, gender or ethnicity. But what may be hard for Marks’ children may be extremely difficult (and in some cases impossible) for another child who has a parent whose spirit or will has been broken by the system and thus unable to motivate her child. Children whose teachers and peers may tell him or her that he/she is not capable of achieving with no one to buffer such venomous emotional attacks may find it impossible to motivate themselves to succeed. I once tutored a homeless child (third grader) who was bright and did not know it. When I tried to help him with his homework, he told me that he was not capable of doing his schoolwork. I asked why not. He said because my teacher told me so. I told him he could do it; that he was smart and capable. I saw him light up, try, and complete his homework. I don’t know what happened to him once that program was over. I don’t know whether he was able to keep that light burning or if that same teacher or another snuffed his little light out like a wick in an old kerosene lamp. We underestimate the power of motivation. Very few children are self-motivated. Children need parents, teachers, significant others in their lives to spark the light of motivation.
Mr. Marks further 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.” Mr. Marks’s repeated use of the phrase “if I were a poor black kid” made be dizzy almost ad nauseam. As he stated at the outset of his article, he is not a poor black kid; he is a middle aged white man with a middle class background unable to stand, sit, squat, or tip toe in the shoes of a poor black kid. Poor black and other minority or white children may very well be living a homeless existence either on the streets or in a shelter, their parent(s) could be addicted to drugs or be physically or emotionally ill; these children could be suffering from sleep deprivation, hunger, teasing and/or bullying by peers and adults because of their circumstances, etc. And the best grades most may possibly achieve under such circumstances may be failing grades. Even middle or upper class children who do not have the added burden of poverty may make failing grades due to emotional trauma or bullying (by peers or adults).
In Mr. Mark’s mind, a black child in poverty would transcend all the obstacles in his poverty stricken, inadequate, racist, biased world so that we would not need to talk about equality, alleviating poverty, racism, etc. All those things are not at issue if the child chooses to “pull himself up by his bootstraps.” No matter the age or circumstances of the poor black child, he can be his own superman or superwoman. Mr. Marks can easily afford to not “care if I was a student in the worst public middle school in the worst inner city” because he is not, nor are his children; they are far from it. And he is unable to even imagine it. “Even the worst have their best,“ Marks argues. And sometimes the best of the worst is just across the railroad tracks or down the street. Remember Kelly Williams-Bolar, the black Ohio woman, who was arrested for enrolling her children in a better school district wanting more opportunities for her children? Obviously, even with the help of a caring and capable parent, the best was not to be an option among the worst.
He goes on to say that “the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities.” My mother spent a lot of time in and out of hospitals, dealing with chronic joint pain. After about the time I was in 3rd of 4th grade she was no longer able to actively participate in my education. Before her illnesses, she was a PTA (Parent Teacher Association) mom. In junior high and high school I achieved very good grades, often being on the honor roll. I did not want to go to college out of high school even though I was college material because I wanted to get a job to help out my mother and to enjoy some financial independence. My guidance counselors (those people Mr. Marks speaks so highly of, and I’m sure some are worthy of his praise) never presented me with alternative options. They never told me that maybe I might change my mind about college and therefore may need to take algebra and a language in preparation for college. Teachers, guidance counselors, administrators etc can be racially, socio-economically, and otherwise biased against children and act upon those biases to withhold options even when they are available, Mr. Marks. Mr. Mark’s has no idea of what the “best of the worst” might be. He seems to be pushing some version of the “survival of the fittest” for poor black children. According to Mr. Marks, “It takes a special kind of kid to succeed.”
“If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have,” argues Mr. Marks. Tell a poor child something he or she does not sense or know. This is a good reason to make sure that poor children do not have to attend lousy schools, that is, to bring about equality, Mr. Marks. No child should have to attend a lousy school. When I think of lousy schools, I think of shortages of books, unmotivated and/or poorly trained or equipped teachers, poor facilities and an atmosphere that does not promote or encourage learning. So are we to leave our poor minority and white children in such poor environments and just push a survival of the fittest mentality? God forbid!
Further Mr. Marks writes “I would use the technology available to me as a student. I know a few school teachers and they tell me that many inner city parents usually have or can afford cheap computers and internet service nowadays.” I would love to know who are these “few school teachers” from whom Mr. Marks derived his uninformed gossip; now this is real ignorance. Really, Mr. Marks? I made a decent salary and I have sometimes considered turning my Internet service off and using the internet at my job. In fact, when the gas prices skyrocketed to over four dollars, I briefly turned off my Internet service to save money and tried using the computers at the nearby Novi public library now and then. Too often, I arrived at the library and not one computer was free; older adults looking for jobs occupied all. Poor kids are supposed to go to libraries, other schools, or locate an online outlet and purchase a computer for themselves (or their parents are to do so). Mr. Marks has no idea what it means to live in poverty. People who live in poverty, as I did growing up, might not possess a quarter for bus fare, a credit or debt card to make purchases online (let alone the cost of the computer), a car or the money to purchase gas for the car, etc. And did Mr. Marks miss the news about the many libraries that have closed during the recent economic recession? In some children’s situations, Mr. Marks is asking children to do the impossible despite his assertion that, “It’s hard, but it is not impossible.” And while I believe in God and that all things are possible with God. Even God used another human being to turn an impossible or inconceivable situation into a reality, namely the incarnation of God’s son through the Virgin Mary’s womb. And you might say that Mary called what God did equality and some might call it a total reversal, an upset of the status quo: “[God] has put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. And he has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away,” Luke 1:52-53. God works through human beings to create possibilities for other human beings. We who believe in the power of God cannot sit by and watch as poverty swallows up our children and allow ignorance to be their strongest, loudest, and deadliest advocate.