“This is the defining issue of our time.” He said. “This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. Because what’s at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement.”
He’s right. The spread between rich and poor has gotten wider over the decades. And the opportunities for the 99% have become harder to realize.
The President’s speech got me thinking. My kids are no smarter than similar kids their age from the inner city. My kids have it much easier than their counterparts from West Philadelphia. The world is not fair to those kids mainly because they had the misfortune of being born two miles away into a more difficult part of the world and with a skin color that makes realizing the opportunities that the President spoke about that much harder. This is a fact. In 2011.
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.
It takes brains. It takes hard work. It takes a little luck. And a little help from others. It takes the ability and the know-how to use the resources that are available. Like technology. As a person who sells and has worked with technology all my life I also know this.
If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently. I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city. Even the worst have their best. And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities. Getting good grades is the key to having more options. With good grades you can choose different, better paths. If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have.
And I would use the technology available to me as a student. I know a few school teachers and they tell me that many inner city parents usually have or can afford cheap computers and internet service nowadays. That because (and sadly) it’s oftentimes a necessary thing to keep their kids safe at home then on the streets. And libraries and schools have computers available too. Computers can be purchased cheaply at outlets like TigerDirect and Dell’s Outlet. Professional organizations like accountants and architects often offer used computers from their members, sometimes at no cost at all.
Is this easy? No it’s not. It’s hard. It takes a special kind of kid to succeed. And to succeed even with these tools is much harder for a black kid from West Philadelphia than a white kid from the suburbs. But it’s not impossible. The tools are there. The technology is there. And the opportunities there.
In Philadelphia, there are nationally recognized magnet schools like Central, Girls High and Masterman. These schools are free. But they are hard to get in to. You need good grades and good test scores. And there are also other good magnet and charter schools in the city. You also need good grades to get into those. In a school system that is so broken these are bright spots. Getting into one of these schools opens up a world of opportunities. More than 90% of the kids that go to Central go on to college. I would use the internet to research each one of these schools so I could find out how I could be admitted. I would find out the names of the admissions people and go to meet with them. If I was a poor black kid I would make it my goal to get into one of these schools.
The white privilege wafting from this article is so thick it’s practically choking me. I grew up in Philadelphia. I attended Girls High (as did my mother and my grandmother; my grandfather and great-uncle attended Central, back when it was still an all boys school.) I applied to Masterman (I don’t think I got in, but I can’t really remember, actually.)
I was not a poor black kid — I was just a black kid. My father was a tenured professor at University of Pennsylvania and my mother was a copy editor for W.B. Saunders (Harcourt-Brace). I never went hungry, I never wanted for technology, and I studied — hard. I worked hard. My parents were both heavily involved in my education. You can imagine growing up the daughter of a professor and a copy editor (it’s the reason I can string two sentences together in a cogent manner). I was a straight A student. But it very easily could have turned out differently.
I moved from suburban Maryland to Philadelphia in the middle of eighth grade. I went to Jenks in Chestnut Hill for about three months before beginning high school at Girls High. When I started at Jenks, the administration there took one look at me and my skin color and unilaterally placed me in math class with primarily black students. When my mother asked me how math was going, I told her it was too easy. I had done all the stuff they were doing. My mother asked me why I didn’t tell the teacher that. I said “But, I did!” (I mostly likely whined it.) I had told the teacher that I knew how to do all the coursework, but she essentially ignored me. My mother had to take off a day of work and go and talk to the principal and my teacher (imagine the look on their faces, when they saw that my mother was white) and basically demand that I be put in a harder math class. Reluctantly, they put me in a more difficult math class (with all the white kids) and ultimately, I got an A in that class. I did well, went on to high school, college, and law school, and the rest is history.
My point is this: Being a poor black child trying to succeed in school is difficult for myriad reasons: lack of resources, parents struggling to put food on the table (often working multiple jobs), teachers paying less attention to black students than non-black students. But being a black child — poor or not — is also difficult because teachers and administrators take a look at you and make assumptions about your intelligence and abilities based solely upon your skin color. In my case, even after I told my teachers and principal that the classes in which they had placed me were too easy, they didn’t believe me. It took my mother getting involved and putting her foot down.
Now how many mothers work jobs that allow them to take a day off to ensure that their child is getting the proper education? My guess is not many. Had my mother not taken that day off — or not been permitted by her employer to take that day off — I likely would not have gone on to take Calculus at Girls High. Maybe I wouldn’t have gone on to Oberlin, or UVA Law. And had my mother been black, who knows how her request to take a day off to talk to her daughter’s teachers would have been received by her employer. I wasn’t sick. There was no emergency. So who knows what would have happened to her — what would have happened to me.
Privilege and racism are embedded in the system, and grand statements like “Try harder! Get a computer (which a poor black kid likely can’t afford in the first instance)! Get into private school!” are offensive in their banality.
So Mr. Marks, the next time you want to opine about life as a poor black kid, just stop. You know nothing of growing up black. You know nothing of growing up poor. You know nothing of the systemic problems in education that result in many black kids, poor or otherwise, being left behind. It’s not a matter of just “trying super hard and really wanting to succeed.” Your assumptions are faulty, and frankly, you sound like a jackass. A well-meaning jackass, perhaps, but a jackass all the same.
So just stop.
[cross-posted at Balloon Juice]