Gene Marks is a business consultant and contributor to publications such as The New York Times, Forbes, The Huffington Post and Bloomberg.com, among others. He runs a ten-person consulting firm outside of Philadelphia. He speaks lovingly, if somewhat dismissively, of his wife and children. Gene Marks seems to have achieved a measure of success in his personal and professional lives.
But I’m very happy I’m NOT Gene Marks. I wouldn’t want to be Gene Marks. Why? Because Gene Marks is a clueless bigot.
In addition to trotting out the most tired, sexist stereotypes of women (and men) in his Forbes post, “Why Most Women Will Never Be CEO,” Marks is the author of the ungrammatically titled Forbes.com post, “If I Was a Poor Black Kid.” In this piece, Marks basically says poor black kids have no excuse for failing, in part because the Internet offers many tools that can help them succeed.
Marks’ article is a perfect example of flawed logic. Yes, even in America today, with its grossly uneven and worsening divide between rich and poor, a poor kid can still rise above his or her circumstances and do well. And yes, the Internet offers many tools that can help supplement classroom learning, or fill in the gaps of what our kids aren’t learning in school. But one does not automatically lead to the other.
Marks assumes that poor black kids (side note to Gene Marks: all black kids in West Philadelphia are not poor) come from families who, though poor, have the resources to afford a cheap ($200-$300) computer from Tiger Direct or Dell’s Outlet. If they stop spending so much money on weaves and Jordans, surely they could buy a computer, right? He assumes poor black kids have contacts at architectural and accounting organizations that donate free used equipment, and that they can easily go get one and set it up themselves, without help.
Let’s stop there. My employer donates used computers to a non-profit organization that gives the computers to schools and other educational programs. There is always more demand than supply. Before my company donates its used computers, the hard drives have to be wiped clean of all software and data – otherwise, we would inadvertently violate the terms of our license agreements. So even if a poor black kid gets a free used computer, he or she would have to purchase software and configure the machines for use. Assuming the kid could somehow afford the software, I don’t know many children, poor or otherwise, who can handle this on their own.
Marks goes on to recommend that poor black kids Skype their friends and use tools like Backpack for homework help. Great recommendation, except the friends of poor black kids are probably other poor black kids, so unless all of the poor black kids in the child’s grade or school are using these tools, they’re not likely to be of much benefit.
In fact, most kids, regardless of race or class, wouldn’t be able to use many of the tools Marks recommends without supervision and support from knowledgeable adults. Few schools serving poor kids of any race have this kind of support, nor will these kids be able to get this type of support at home from their parents, who themselves are likely the undereducated products of failing urban school systems, and who are going to be even more unfamiliar with these tools than schoolteachers and administrators.
The last two paragraphs of Marks’ article are perhaps the most infuriating:
“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.”
How can Marks acknowledge the problems in the first paragraph quoted above, and yet conclude with the second? School budgets are among the first to be cut. Class sizes are getting larger every year, and assistant teachers are a thing of the past. Neighborhood public libraries are closing because of state budget crises. Those that remain open operate with limited hours and even more limited resources. Teachers are judged by their students’ performance on standardized tests, which don’t include technology subjects. They have no time, no room and no ability to teach outside the curriculum. Even high-performing schools are under pressure to maintain their status, and weed out underachieving students rather than help them succeed.
I grew up in a class that is now nearly extinct in this country: the working class. My father worked for Ford Motor Company. Thanks to my mother’s ability to stretch one dollar into six, we had no idea what it was like to go hungry. We were well-fed, well-dressed and well-cared for. My mother was a tireless advocate for her children in school, and it is due to her efforts that I received a very good education in some of Detroit’s worst public schools.
But back then, there were programs to assist kids like me. Work-study jobs put the weekend cash in my pocket my parents couldn’t afford to send. In-state tuition at the University of Michigan was far more affordable than it is now, but my parents still couldn’t afford it. Pell Grants covered a good portion of my tuition. I covered the rest by working hard to earn academic scholarships. I had a miniscule amount of student debt when I graduated from college. None of what I just described is available for most poor kids in this country, even if they work their asses off to get to the point of being eligible for college.
As a middle class white guy who lives in the suburbs, Marks knows nothing about the realities of life in a city like Philadelphia. I recently participated in a panel discussion of the film “The Help,” at an event sponsored by the Greenwich YWCA. Being in Greenwich helped me see why policymakers and people like Marks are so out of touch in understanding the challenges and needs of the poor. In one half-mile stretch, I passed a YMCA, a YWCA, a free public library, and two houses of worship – one Christian, one Jewish. The streets were tree-lined, the sidewalks were wide, and the area was very safe. A person like Gene Marks who grew up in a community probably not all that different from Greenwich, assumes everyone has access to similar services, regardless of income. By their reckoning, a person who fails to take advantage of the low-cost services in their community is just lazy. People like Marks don’t understand what life is really like in a poor urban community. Like Marks, they make unfounded assumptions about life in such areas because deep inside, they fear both the neighborhoods and the people who live there.
I am not trying to convince Gene Marks of anything. I hated his article, but as an educated, middle-class black woman, I am better equipped to take advantage of the resources he mentioned than the poor black kids Marks purported to address. I will use the tools he cites for my own kids. If I were Gene Marks, I would visit a school in an underprivileged part of West Philadelphia and talk to some poor black kids, as well as their teachers and parents. Perhaps if he did, he might be inspired to offer some real help.