Open Letter to Gene Marks

11 January 2012

An open letter from guest contributor: Ashante Reese

Mr. Marks,

As an anthropologist and an educator who taught middle school in inner city Atlanta, I am writing because I am deeply concerned about issues of social justice. Your recent article, “If I Were a Poor Black Kid” has received many comments and replies, and from your responses to comments on Forbes, it is clear that you feel very strongly about what you wrote. I, too, feel very strongly about what you wrote, but not in the same ways as you.

Some have critiqued you because your being a white male writing about what poor black kids should and, presumably, could do is a reflection of privilege. Though I take this as an important point, I am less concerned with this particular aspect. Anthropology demonstrates that while we can’t fully “understand” someone else’s plight, we can gain insight into other people’s lives and ways of being over time. I believe issues on inequality are everyone’s problem; so you, as a white man, can ethically write about poor black kids, however, one must be educated about the conditions, history, and dynamism involved in existing in the world as poor, as black, as gendered (a dynamic you gloss over in your work), and as an adolescent who lives at the intersection of those complex social categories.

Others have responded with an account of how your article infuriated them, because of the underlying assumption that there is “something wrong” with poor black kids. However, I would rather not delve into my emotional response. Instead, I would like to address what appears to me to be your faulty logic. I have outlined my points below:

  • Individual Responsibility and Collective Action One of the primary, illogical ideas you promote in this article is that the responsibility falls squarely on children. As a former middle school teacher, I certainly believe kids, depending on age, have varying degrees of responsibility in their education. However, this responsibility you speak on in this article is so decontextualized that it is hard for me to make much sense of it. Most kids—regardless of race or class—rely on their parents for most needs and most often have to get permission to do most of the things you’re suggesting in your article. Individual responsibility at any age needs to be framed in such a way that balances that with collective action. After all, no one really gets to where they’re trying to go simply by working hard, right? Parents matter. Social, economic, and cultural capital matter, and these things vary based on who a person is, what s/he has access to, and who s/he knows. Let’s face it. We live in a world where people like to take credit for their actions but don’t always recognize the folks that helped them get to where they’re going. Yet, your article lacks any talk about collective responsibility or action, and in fact, you largely let yourself off the hook. You speak of their problems as if they are not your own. Maybe they are not; and if you can say that—that they are not your problems—that is a privilege in itself.
  • Knowing Better Equals Doing Better? Mr. Marks, do you ever do things that you know you shouldn’t do but you do them anyway? Like eat an extra cookie? Skip out on work to do something that’s more enjoyable? You know these things aren’t right, but you do them anyway. Yet, no one is lambasting you about your choices. There is an assumption that knowing=doing. Well it doesn’t. And there are a lot of reasons for that, not the least of which is the fact that knowing doesn’t translate into having the resources to do, and—whether you want to really grapple with this or not—some people really do start several paces behind others. You mention that the greatest challenge of our time is ignorance not inequality. I don’t have time or space to really critique that as much as I want, but I will say this: there are people who rise in the face on inequality; who end up being successful in spite of. I am one of those people. But I would be a fool to think that just because I did it someone else will or can, because let’s face it, if inequality didn’t matter, no one would be poor.
  • Wait, Why Did You Choose Poor Black Kids Anyway? Lastly, I’m trying to figure out why you choose to focus on poor black kids anyway. Is it because you already believe there is some deficiency, something that needs to be remedied in this sect of poor kids? Is it that poor kids of other races/ethnicities have “figured it out” yet black kids have not? I read President Obama’s speech that you allude to in your opening, and not once does he mention black kids. In fact, he doesn’t mention race as a factor that perpetuates inequality (sidenote: he should have). Perhaps you know that race matters when talking about inequality. But I doubt it. Nothing in your article gives me reason to believe that. So I’m trying to figure out why you did. Are you feeding into the polemical black/white divide that so much research and articles feed into? Do you view poor black kids in a particular light that renders other poor kids invisible? I’m really struggling with this, because you never provide your reasoning, and as a scholar who is interested in the intersections of race and class (and other social constructions), I would love to know how you came to this decision that you fail to justify in the article.

Your article is socially irresponsible. While not a New York Times front page article, doing some research before writing it would have been beneficial…  Based on your responses in the comment section of your own article and that of others posted on the internet, I get the impression that you are not willing to learn more about why so many people think your article was irresponsible and inaccurate. However, if you happen to be interested in learning more about race and class, please let me know. I know brilliant scholars who study this material without making normative claims about what children “should do.”

You say that you believe that it takes love, care, and help from adults and communities: Where do you fit in, Mr. Marks?

Ashanté M. Reese

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