So the other day, my homegirl Natasha (please check out her blog. She’s a serious mind) put me on to a pretty unnerving article written by Gene Marks, a business and technology contributor for Forbes Magazine. The article entitled, “If I was a Poor Black Kid” (probably putting money in his pocket each time the link is clicked) offered what Marks considered a cure-all to the inequalities faced by impoverished Black youth in our country. Marks’ commentary, laced with naïveté, posited that the key to economic equality for poor black kids was through education; specifically information technology. In theory, I agree. But if the admission into the technological world of which he spoke was so easy, there would have already been an explosion of smart Black kids finding their way into this country’s elite institutions. But unfortunately for Marks (and many others) reciting the “picking yourself up by the bootstraps” narrative doesn’t work when there are no bootstraps in the first place. Unfortunately, the perfect world scenario to which Marks has alluded can’t exist in a nation where the poverty rate for Black children is around 38%, almost triple that of Whites, where the black incarceration is almost six times that whites, and where inner-city schools are closing left and right while suburban schools are flourishing.

I should make it clear at this point that I’m not retreating to the victimization narrative that so many other people use as a crutch. Not in the least bit. And I do believe that personal responsibility must always be taken into account when examining certain social phenomena. But I’m forever annoyed when individuals like Gene Marks (and for that matter, most of the Republican party) lay out a litany of simplistic solutions all rotating around the contention that Black kids should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps without critically examining the precipitating circumstances contributing to certain pathological behavior, or – for that matter – recognizing the privilege he and others like him boast. Until he considers those very complex ideas, his suggestions fall on deaf ears.

Marks says that if he were a poor, Black kid, he would make reading a number one priority, regardless of the state of the school. What Mr. Marks fails to take into account is the fact that schools ARE the problem! Many of the brightest Black students at under-performing schools succeed in spite of, not because of the institutional support they receive. Included in the lack of resources are up-to-date books, modern technological tools, adequate college placement or even a modest amount of career counseling. Additionally, the limited access or exposure to various expensive subscription-based scholarly resources only contributes to the steepness of the learning curve. More often than not, students who already felt failed by a disparate educational system are less likely motivated to push for success, even if they perform well in the classroom.

Mark furthers his rather vacuous argument by citing the role of information technology in black youth social improvement. On that point, I can agree. The emergence of social media has given black youth – and people, in general – more opportunity than ever to develop themselves intellectually and increase their civic engagement via cybernetic activity. However, access and a lack of technological proficiency found among poor folks is in this country is no fantasy. All the technological and educational tools in the world don’t matter if your family can’t afford internet access.

Marks adds to his insulting commentary by suggesting that in addition to getting good grades, poor Black kids should focus on improving their test scores. More nonsense. As a person who has taken hundreds of tests over my lifetime, several of which were standardized tests used for college admissions and placement, I can say these tests were not designed to measure raw intelligence. In fact, many of the tests were merely an exercise in memory and regurgitation. But even standardized testing like the ACT and SAT, which require students to have understanding of the content, support is severely limited. Oftentimes, curriculum is not designed to address some of the content found on these tests. Even then, access to test prep materials, courses, and tutorial services can be very costly. Passing exams like this is with minimal resources is not simply a product of “mind over matter” , contrary to how easy Marks make is sound.

All throughout various political circles, critics incessantly default to the Bootstrap principle to confront societal issues, usually doing so without addressing the systemic barriers impacting the ability of so many young people of color to advance. I don’t disagree that personal motivation, and parental involvement are factors that must be taken into consideration as well. However we can’t have discussions like this when disadvantaged people are faced with disparate access to vital resource. Instead of subscribing to the normative behavior of identifying scapegoats in the victims, perhaps we should focus our efforts on getting to the heart of the problem.

What do you think? Do you think Marks is on to something or that he has to walk a few miles in the other person’s shoes first? Holla at me!

– ACL

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