I don't know what made Gene Marks, a self-proclaimed "short, balding and mediocre certified public accountant" write an essay for Forbes titled, "If I Were a Poor Black Kid." Maybe he meant well. I don't know if he cares, but if I were a guy named Marks who writes for Forbes I'd be sorry I ever pushed send that day. I don't think Marks was trying to be funny, but his advice was so simplistic it was laughable. Poor black kids should try really really hard to get good grades. They should learn how to read. They should use Google Scholar, SparkNotes, CliffNotes, and Wikipedia. (I know some English teachers who would strongly disagree, by the way. These are all the things we tell our college students NOT to do.) They should go to magnet schools, or charter schools, or get scholarships to expensive private schools. They should also win the lottery and buy a big house in the suburbs. They should become professional basketball players and get picked in the NBA draft. They should become Rap stars. Okay, Marks didn't say the stuff in the last three sentences, but since the urban in-demand charter schools work on a lottery system, most kids have about as much chance getting in as they do winning the Powerball Six. Or maybe, as a famous politician recently suggested, we should pay the poor black kids to clean the school bathrooms. At least then they won't be as poor anymore.
Of course, the most insulting thing about Marks' essay is that it completely ignores the structural racism that created and maintains the educational inequity faced by poor kids from many backgrounds. Marks' attempt to solve problems that are the legacy of centuries of discrimination with a healthy dose of homespun advice sounded more like something from Stephen Colbert than a serious examination of a complicated problem.
Like Marks, I'm not a poor black kid. I'm a middle class white adult. I'm not about to tell poor black kids what to do. Instead, I'll tell myself and people like me what to do. We need to fund education equally, offering all kids a high quality education from preschool through high school. We need to do what it takes to encourage our best teachers and administrators to serve our most needy schools, not the other way around. We need to put programs in place that support poor families and communities in a myriad of ways. We need to vote for people who care about helping poor kids, families and communities more than they care about anything else. We need to stop reproducing the racial/class status quo in education through segregated schools, academic tracking, and a white teaching force that is not trained to think about how their own position of power and privilege impacts their students. And sometimes we just need to shut up.