If I Were a Middle-Class Douchebag…

14 Dec

Middle-aged accountant and, based on his Forbes column photo, winner of the annual “Whitest Guy in America Competition” for the 40th consecutive year Gene Marks chose to share his wisdom in a manner similar to someone dropping a flaming brown paper bag outside your front door:

I am not a poor black kid. I am a middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background. So life was easier for me. But that doesn’t mean that the prospects are impossible for those kids from the inner city. It doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities for them. Or that the 1% control the world and the rest of us have to fight over the scraps left behind. I don’t believe that. I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed. Still. In 2011. Even a poor black kid in West Philadelphia.

Marks believes that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed. And so it is. Even a poor black kid in West Philadelphia… wait a minute, why does that sound familiar?

Oh yeah, Marks probably caught “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” documentary from the 1990s. That was probably the breadth of his research on the subject. Of course, Will Smith (the TV character) did not succeed in West Philadelphia. If you listen to the theme song lyrics, Will’s mother realizes that he’ll either wind up dead or in jail if he stays in the neighborhood, so she takes the option available to all inner-city mothers: She ships him off to live with her sister, who is married to a successful lawyer and resides in Bel-Air, California. There, Will will have access to a stable home environment, the best quality education at an expensive and exclusive prep school, and most importantly no potentially lethal distractions from his homework, such as gangs or the police. Problem solved.

Marks is smart enough to realize it’s not as simple as a rich relative. He recommends that poor black kids can escape their underperforming schools by studying real hard and getting a scholarship to one of those magnent schools that their wealthy but average counterparts attend through no real effort other than choosing to have rich parents.

As Gene Demby at The Huffington Post points out by using research rather than falling asleep during a cable airing of “The Blind Side,” this is nonsense.

…Marks’ mentions Philadelphia’s magnet schools, highlighting Masterman, Central and Girls High as possibilities for the “poor black kid.” Focusing on these three schools, they are very difficult to get into and their demographics are markedly different from the larger School District of Philadelphia. Out of the 11,438 9th graders in Philadelphia, 990 or 8.7% attend those three schools. Admission to those schools is fierce. J. R. Masterman School accepts fewer than 1%  of the students that apply from outside of its middle school. Due to its larger size, Central High School is easier to get into, accepting 24% of its applicants.  Admission to the Philadelphia High School for Girls is of course limited to girls.

To be a “poor black kid” in West Philly and receive admission to one of these magnet schools, you can’t just show up on the first day of ninth grade. All of these magnet school have admissions requirements that must be met for consideration, including excellent grades, excellent standardized test scores, and excellent attendance not just in 8th grade, but in all middle school grades. You need to know the application process, and have a parent, teacher, or guidance counselor that can help you navigate this process. None of which was addressed in Marks’ privileged article.

Denby touches on the largest omission in Marks’s article: Parents. No child succeeds without their involvement. Marks seemed to believe that a child would have the “will the power” to “make sure (he) got the best grades possible (and) make it (his) #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently” without active parental support.

Parents are the ones who instill these values in their children. They set up expectations and standards. Even your Lisa Simpson prodigies have stability at home — it’s difficult to concentrate on your homework if your parents are re-enacting the climax of an Italian opera in the other room — and positive reinforcement from their families. OK, let’s say a child is able to ignore all of that. Who’s going to take the child to the library? Who’s going to help the child with her homework? I am nothing without my parents, who sacrificed, who put me first, who believed that I could do things that they had not. Did my mother really want to drive me half an hour to the city’s library because it had a larger selection than the local branch? Actually, she probably did because she placed a high value on my education. But I didn’t choose that. I did not will my parents to care.

I imagine that Marks’s article and its absurd Marks-ist philosophy will be the subject of online ridicule for a long time (frankly, I couldn’t sleep at night if this wasn’t the case). However, as we all laugh at his unholy union of arrogance and ignorance, we shouldn’t ignore the looming question of what compelled him to write such a racist article in the first place. And it is racist. He claims President Obama’s recent speech inspired it, but Obama said nothing about race (he gave the speech in Kansas; there’s one black person there and his car broke down). It’s telling that Marks views poverty as a black thing… like sickle-cell anemia and hair weaves. Don’t let those mindless paens to consumerism on the CW and FOX fool you, there are a lot of poor white kids. The Clampetts didn’t even have wealthy relatives. They had to do it the old-fashioned way — exploitation of fossil fuels underneath their home.

However, The Daily Kos’s response to Marks’s column mentioned something that answered my question.

Forbes magazine has posted a column by Gene Marks, a middle aged white guy, who wants to give advice to poor black kids about how to be successful in America. Of course, these young black kids read Forbes everyday and will internalize his wisdom. There is no poverty porn, noblesse oblige, white paternalism, compassionate conservative masturbation, navel gazing at work here. No. None at all.

I would argue that Gene Marks and those like him (there are unfortunately many) do no suffer from “noblese oblige.” No, those who subscribe to the Marks-ist philosophy must believe in the Myth of Democracy, the Horatio Alger fantasy, or their entire world view collapses.

We might prefer a democratic system but at least those dining on mutton at King Henry’s court did not fool themselves into believing they were self-made. They believed in the divine right of birth, which at least in its way acknowledges that if God raised you up, perhaps some sympathy for those below you was in order. This is back when kings and queens would bathe the feet of the poor rather than suggesting, as Newt Gingrich did recently, that they take a bath and get a job.

There is far more class mobility now than in Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s time but Thomas Jefferson warned that liberty required eternal vigilance. If Marks had actually listened to the words of Obama’s speech, he would have realized that the president was advising the same thing regarding the ability of U.S. children to not be defined by the circumstances of their birth. Marks chooses to ignore that, to maintain and perpetuate the Myth of Democracy, as it slowly becomes as fanciful as a kind old man in a sleigh led by eight tiny reindeer.

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Posted by on December 14, 2011 in Social Commentary


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