“If I Were a Poor Black Child”…White Saviorism and the Politics of Personal Responsibility

Last week, Forbes Magazine’s small business reporter Gene Marks penned a column that has set the internet abuzz ever since. Therein, Marks, who quite accurately describes himself as “short, balding and mediocre,” proceeded to counsel poor black children as to how they might succeed in America, despite facing, by his own admission, longer odds than white youth like his own children, or other white middle class kids in general. Far from a harsh right-winger bent on condemning the moral decency, character or abilities of the black poor (or like Newt Gingrich in his 1994 vintage, ripping them away from their mothers and dumping them in orphanages), Marks appears to fashion himself an enlightened benefactor of good advice, a caring liberal who believes in the ability of anyone to make it with the right combination of hard work and a positive attitude.

No believer in Bell Curv-ish nonsense about black intellectual inferiority, Marks makes clear that the children about whom he speaks are no less capable than his own kids. Of course, one wonders just how much of a compliment Marks really intends for this to be, given his strange habit of dissing his offspring, on more than one occasion, as rather unintelligent, unmotivated, promiscuous and even inclined to petty criminality. Not sure what kind of asshole says things like this about his children in print, but I suppose we can leave that discussion for another day.

No doubt Marks would say that he was simply encouraging poor African American kids to take personal responsibility for their success. He might even say that by acknowledging unfair and unjust structural inequity (and even, indirectly, white privilege), he was doing so in a politically ecumenical way. Certainly Marks would perceive his words and intentions as quite different from those of right-wingers whose hectoring of the poor so often involves blaming those at the bottom of the nation’s economic hierarchy for their station in life. To Marks, poor black kids are not to blame for the position in which they find themselves, but they nonetheless hold the keys to their own liberation, and if they would simply follow his sage counsel they could surely make it, like anyone else: even the cerebrally challenged and oversexed spawn who slumber each night just down the hall from he and his wife.

There is much one could say about Marks’s advice — rather typical bootstrapping fare about studying hard, coupled with a more modern emphasis on becoming a techie like him, and thereby, presumably, an irresistible college or job applicant — and most of it has been said already. Like, for instance, this piece, or this one, or this one, or maybe this one, all of which eloquently critique the privileged and naive mindset displayed by Marks, and explain how even when poor kids of color do everything right, the structures of society are too often set up to help them fail anyway.

Or maybe this well-crafted prose from Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which the author examines the pathetic and yet all-too-common tendency to believe that one knows what one would (or could) do, were one subject to oppression, as Marks seems to believe he does. As Coates points out, there is a strange psychological aspect to this self-assurance, in that it demonstrates how badly we wish to rise above our own mediocrity, by placing ourselves in another person’s shoes and then ascribing to our fictional self some super-human powers of transcendence that deep down, we know we lack in this, the real world of our daily existence. Heady stuff, more intellectually satisfying (and a hell of a lot better written) than anything Marks has ever committed to a computer screen.

Or maybe this piece, by a staffer at Forbes, in which the author explains how people like Marks are paid for their contributions based on how many unique page views they receive, which means, based on how controversial and enraging their articles sound. In other words, one has every reason to question Marks’s real motivation for penning such smug, scatological rubbish, as it may well have been more about generating hits and dough for himself than about helping any actual poor black children, who — and do I really need to say this? — aren’t probably sitting around reading Forbes in the first place.

And it’s this last point that we might do well to explore further. Fact is, Gene Marks knows his readership at Forbes. He knows that it includes virtually none of the people to whom he is ostensibly offering advice, which means that he isn’t really giving them advice at all; rather, he is inviting his mostly white, mostly affluent audience to engage in a perverse moralistic voyeurism at the expense of impoverished African American youth, almost none of whom that readership will ever meet, and whom they will, in fact, go out of their way to avoid. He is offering a kind of secret white-male handshake to others in the club, assuring them that the problems of urban poverty are not theirs to fix, that they are off the hook as it were, and isn’t that a relief? That Marks may not be as vile in his desire to blame the poor for their status as some, hardly acquits him of the charge that by pandering to the biases of his readership, he has, with some 700-odd simple (and simplistic) words, managed to reinscribe all the worst of their prejudices, many of which one can see on grand display in the readers’ comments section of the original article. Make no mistake, Gene Marks’s column is contempt cloaked as compassion and bigotry dressed up as benevolence. And it can do nothing but contribute to the indifference and even antipathy towards the poor that those who rely on Forbes for insights already possess in ample supply.

What is even more disturbing about Marks’s phony advice column is what it says about the politics of personal responsibility in America. For years we’ve heard the same refrain: those people need to take personal responsibility for their lives and stop blaming the system for their problems. We even passed a welfare reform bill in the 1990s named the Personal Responsibility Act, because to hear its advocates tell it, it was a lack of the same that explained why people were poor and in need of public assistance. Yet in every iteration of this grandiose mantra of self-help, we routinely miss the intrinsic irony of its blare: that to point at someone else as Marks has done, while clucking one’s tongue about taking personal responsibility is quite possibly the most circle-perfect contradiction, and the most inimitable example of ethical self-negation that one could possibly conjure.

The simple fact is, even were we to accept every bit of advice that Marks dispenses in his column as perfectly sensible, the question would still remain: Is it the job of white men of means to tell other people how to take personal responsibility for themselves, or is it our job, by definition under a rubric of personal responsibility, to figure out what we are going to do about such things as class and race subordination?

That folks can prattle on about personal responsibility and not grasp what I’m saying here is indicative of a substantial and suffocating cultural flaw — and not one that flows from the culture of those who are poor or black, but quite predictably from those who are neither: namely, we have grown so accustomed to showering jeremiads upon the have-nots (and ascribing their state of need to something essential about them), that we have become almost incapable of turning the finger back around and aiming it at ourselves, despite the fact that to do anything else is a violation of the very concept of personal responsibility about which we seem so self-righteously animated.

In short, while it is certainly true that the poor and persons of color should always do their best and try their hardest to overcome the obstacles they experience in life — and that has always been the case, even under conditions of formal apartheid that marked the vast majority of our national existence — this says nothing as to what people like Gene Marks need to be discussing, in print or elsewhere. Marks, like so many other white Americans with a modicum of success, uses personal responsibility as a cudgel against others, when what he (and we) should be doing is figuring out what it means for ourselves.

It’s something I’ve had to grapple with personally for years. As someone who writes about racism, and lectures around the country about the same, I am often asked by people of color, what I think they should do to overcome racial oppression, or to succeed despite its weight. Although I can offer some general insights (based on what the actual research says regarding positive racial identity development and how targets of oppression can effectively fight back against structures of injustice), I am always a bit hesitant to spend a lot of time on the matter. And this surely isn’t because I am indifferent to the question or the persons asking it. Far from it, every time the query is put to me it burns like a hot poker, because I realize the all-too-real pain behind the inquiry; I can see in the eyes and hear in the voices of those who are seeking out my counsel on the matter that they really need assistance. And God knows they deserve it.

But what I also know is this: Folks of color cannot depend upon the advice and counsel of white people so as to fashion strategies for their liberation; neither can women, LGBT folks or the poor count on the suggestions of men, straight and cisgendered folks or those with money to secure their ultimate freedom. Simply put, even when our intentions are good, we cannot possibly know what it is to be in the position of the oppressed in those categories to which we do not belong. Even when one is a member of a marginalized group in a particular category (like gender or sexuality), this will not be sufficient to inform them as to what it means to be black, or Latino, or Asian American or indigenous to this nation, if they are racially privileged as whites. So to pretend that we really know what to do in situations we do not inhabit (beyond what certain research can tell us) is to engage in the kind of conceit that Marks so spectacularly demonstrated in his Forbes piece, none of which was rooted in research, bur relied instead on his personal, behind-the-veil-of-white-male-ignorance assumptions as to what will work for others, since, after all, it worked for him.

This is not to say that those in privileged identity groups have no role to play in the creation of a more just society. Of course we do, as allies. That means that what we can do and should be doing, so as to make more successful whatever strategies are ultimately chosen by the disempowered as they seek to overcome their position, is figuring out how we can use our status to open doors, to challenge policies that maintain inequity, and to combat the mentality of denial and indifference that too often grips our number. That is our role: to soften up the underbelly of support that the current systems of racism, sexism, heterosexism and classism rely upon so as to do their damage. It is our role to work as members of identity-based undergrounds, as it were, eroding the ambivalence that so often makes even caring and compassionate white folks, men, straight and cisgendered persons and folks with money turn our backs on our better instincts for justice, equality and democracy.

And it is our job to subvert systems of oppression directly, in our professional capacities, personal lives, as parents in the schools our children attend, and throughout our communities. What does that mean? It means that the question people like Gene Marks need to be asking is not so much, “What would I do if I were a poor black kid?”, but rather, what can I do right now, as the person I am, to help address racial and economic inequity?

What is Marks going to do (and what are we who are like him going to do) to reach out to those persons he feels qualified to advise, and see to it that they know of job opportunities like the ones his own kids got for the summer last year, despite not being, in his own words very “bright?” After all, with black teen unemployment rates at all time highs (over 50 percent in many urban communities), unless those with influence in various workplaces do targeted and committed outreach to those persons so regularly left out of opportunity, very little about their condition will change. That is something that black children cannot do for themselves — by definition if they’re counted in unemployment numbers they already are committed to work and searching for a job — but it is something over which many of us might have some say.

What is Marks going to do (and what are the rest of us going to do) to challenge the unequal educational resources between the kinds of schools that Marks’s children (and many of ours) no doubt attend, and the ones that serve mostly low income persons of color? The impoverished have no control over budgetary allocations, little say in teacher assignments (which often result in the most experienced and effective teachers being assigned to affluent white students and the least experienced and least effective being herded into rooms for the black and poor), and almost no power to influence so-called ability tracking schemes (which are more about race and class than actual ability), or racially-disparate discipline (under which black kids are suspended about 3 times as often as whites despite similar rates of misconduct). Unless and until white parents of means begin to demand equity in education, and join in solidarity with those persons of color and the poor who have long demanded change, those structures will likely continue unabated. And until we commit to challenging ourselves and each other about the need for such change — and piercing the denial and ambivalence that too often prevents us from acting on the truth — such solidarity is equally unlikely.

What is Marks willing to do (and what are we willing to do) to confront racial profiling, police brutality, job discrimination, or housing discrimination, all of which continue to divide the nation racially and marginalize people of color, regardless of their own behaviors, values or work effort? Is he (and are we) prepared to confront our political leaders about their own persistent refusal to address such concerns? Are we prepared to withhold support from those who seek our votes but don’t take racial equity seriously?

Are we prepared to challenge our own employers about policies, practices and procedures that may have a disparate impact upon people of color, even if not intentionally? Are we prepared to challenge old boy’s networks for jobs or college admissions, even when those may work to our own benefits or the benefits of our kids? Is Gene Marks, for instance, willing to not seek out better opportunities for his own children (after all, their mediocrity suggests they surely haven’t earned them)? If they decide to go to whatever college Marks attended, is he willing to eschew using his alumni status to help land them in his alma mater on the legacy tip? Is he willing to challenge his readership to do the same: to not pull strings to get jobs for their kids, or internships, or seats in prestigious universities?

Are they willing to send information about job openings in their companies and workplaces to community groups, churches, mosques, and professional organizations led by people of color, so that those institutions can get the word out to their constituents, thereby casting the net for equal opportunity in the workplace more widely? Are they (are we) prepared to call out racism each and every time we see it, among family, friends, colleagues, neighbors and others? So too with classism and all other forms of oppression?

Unless the answer to all those questions is yes — and sadly, I know that for most of us the answer is not — then it is sanctimonious and vulgar to pretend we have any right to pose as enlightened advisors to the victims of those things we are too weak to confront. Especially when we (or others like us) are the ones who set the systems up that way in the first place, and we who, at least in relative terms, continue to reap the benefits of those institutional arrangements.

In short, to Gene Marks and to all white men like him (and me): Doctor, heal thyself.

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