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If I Were Gene Marks

13 Dec 2011

written by Carolyn

800px-Benjamin_Franklin_statue_in_front_of_College_Hall

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.


16 Comments on If I Were Gene Marks

  1. Angel Blanca (@BecomingAMW)

    As always, your points are salient, cogent responses to the issues raised. As you note, is always easier for some to point to the access they have and the information they’re able to gain from their privilege and networks, and to assume that their experiences are normative, rather than the sum of factors that have positioned them to have access and to take advantage of that information.

    What strikes me as particularly galling, aside from the fact that Marks fits none of the characteristics of the population he presumes to speak on behalf of, is that Marks is saying that a child, regardless of race, class, or location, should be able to reason what resources and what path are most likely to lead to success based upon his familiarity with those resources. What chutzpah! What naivete! I would say that children need to be shown what’s available to them, instructed on how to take advantage of what’s available, and then shown how what they do today affects what they do tomorrow and well into the future.

    Rather than spew lectures on his ability to right the many challenges poor children in poorly performing school districts face, wouldn’t it make more sense for Marks to be part of efforts to ensure access to and understanding of available resources, and, perhaps, to use his position in business to make such educational efforts part of what’s standard education for all students? In other words, rather than tell poor children that they should do X,Y,Z, why not put your efforts toward providing these opportunities for the poor children, who live a scant two miles from you, Mr. Marks? After all, aren’t you saying, essentially, that your prescription will cure what ails poor black children? Let’s see you do it. I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to see what you will deliver as the Superman for whom we’ve been waiting.

  2. Mark Robinson

    There are two ironies of the Gene Marks article and they are equally tragic.

    The first is that Marks’ thesis is based on the belief that one of the principal liabilities holding back poor blacks is ignorance. Ignorance of all the resources available that could help them help themselves. The irony is that the one (representing the many) most afflicted by ignorance is Mr. Marks himself. Ignorance of the life experiences of people who are all around him, hiding in plain sight.

    The second is that all of the resources that Marks describes as being the potential tools of salvation (or at least aspiration) of poor blacks, are in fact the very same tools that affluent Americans (of every shade) take for granted and use to their full advantage every single day. The resources that Marks describes are in fact the very instruments that create and perpetuate the vast chasm between rich and poor.

    And yet he is unable to see this.

    Ignorance describes the state of being without knowledge. Stupidity describes the condition of choosing to be without knowledge.

  3. Carolyn

    Mark, you and Angel both make valid points. My daughter – who I wish I could convince to write for my blog – made another. Although she didn’t read the article, I described it to her. Reflecting on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, she pointed out that poor kids in bad neighborhoods have to focus on survival first, and everything else afterwards. Yet Mr. Marks finally brought his head out of the sand and responded to a ‘response’ piece on Huffington Post by saying he sticks with his original advice. This empty rhetoric is why education policy is failing our kids, and ultimately, failing this country.

  4. CaliGirlED

    Great post, as always! Your daughter is very smart! Wonder where she gets that from? ;-)

    The fool ended with, “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.” Talk about contradicting yourself! SMH

  5. Foxy Brown

    i was a poor black kid….

    so, this affluent white guy is writing about being a poor black kid with knowledge that he has as an affluent white guy…oh ok.

    your daughter is right (of course!). it’s all about survival. if those basic needs are not met, then nothing else will be accomplished. not even poor black family is out buying jordans and weaves. hell, i lived for four years in a house with no heat or hot water. we literally only had a roof over our heads.

    even if you gave the kid a computer, who’s gonna pay for the internet? if grandma is raising the kid, who is gonna explain all this technology to her? who is gonna explain to her why the over-crowded, under-funded school where she sends the kids only has six computers for the entire school, thus why she needs one at home?

    so, we are at a point where we are blaming the poor black kids for being poor black kids as opposed to fixing the system that is failing these poor black kids? oh ok.

  6. Carolyn

    You are exactly on point. Yes, between Gingrich, Trump and now Marks, it seems it has become fashionable to blame poor black kids for being poor.

  7. Amanda Michelle Jones

    *crosses legs, sips tea, side-eyes gene marks over brim of glasses*

  8. Wanett

    I did research for two grad school assignments that blow all of the crap her spewed out of the water. One article in particular stands out to me. In it, a teacher researched the differences between library branches in poor and affluent areas. The massive chasm between the services/technology/resources/hours/staff within the SAME library system was staggering. The poor neighborhood’s branch had one computer for staff AND patrons to use, was open fewer hours and served 5 times as many people as the branches in more affluent neighborhoods.

    In addition to better everything being available at those branches, the immediate community donated time and money and resources. So the children/seniors/fringe citizens who most need that help aren’t getting it because the business people who are in a position to help out only want to help those who are able to spend money with them in return.

    Even if these issues weren’t important to me as someone who grew up in the hood without much academic support, it is DEAD easy to research them to educate yourself. There are an endless number of studies I found about the digital divide and service discrepancies across the US. And this was just in reference to public libraries. If I can access this information as someone with relatively little experience doing this type of research, surely someone who is supposed to be a journalist can do the same.

  9. Carolyn

    Somehow I doubt Marks would advocate that those poor black kids get bused into his community so they can go to school with his kids and use the same libraries and computer facilities his kids have access to. Great comment.

  10. Rodney

    I’m a middle class black IT professional who grew up in a middle class predominantly black neighborhood in New Jersey. My father was an electrical engineer & my mother was an educator in Newark. Both of my parents grew up poor (my father in Newark when it was predominantly white, my mother in rural West Virginia where grandpa was a coal miner & the family sustenance farmed). While I did not grow up poor, poverty was only a few steps away from my front door & I had relatives who were poor (I’m trying to help some of their kids now to get/keep them on track to get a good education, etc). Mr. Marks is simply ignorant of the world outside of his own little bubble. What I find most disturbing is that as this ‘debate’ has heated up, he has chosen to stick to his guns rather than acknowledge his ignorance. I would suggest that Mr. Marks come out out here by me for a visit. I live in a semi-rural area of Ohio now that has a large population of poor whites…you know, good old middle America. What he will find here is that the poor white kids here are in pretty much the same boat as inner city poor black kids. My wife is a teaching assistant with a focus on special needs kids (the definition of which has expanded to include kids with emotional & behavioral problems, not just the ‘special’ kids that my generation had growing up). Many of these kids have no guidance and no stability at home. They don’t know if they’ll have clean clothes to wear, food to eat, or even a roof over their head from day to day. A computer? Their parents sell the kids’ stuff to buy drugs. The teachers have stopped giving clothes to the kids because they never see them with those clothes again. You think they won’t sell a computer? Most of the guys who work under me make $8-12/hour. I sell them laptops that I refurbish, etc for $50. They take them home & look for neighbors who have unsecured wireless networks to connect to in order to get on the internet…they don’t have the money to pay $30-50/month for broadband.

    Those of us who aren’t poor have all sorts of ideas of what poor people should be doing differently, however those ideas are based on our own experiences, day-to-day living situations, education, & future outlook. If anything, we should help guide, not tell the poor how wrong they are and that they’re lazy.


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