Race, class, work … or how to sell a story

__________My colleague and Words with Friends nemesis, Michael Lavieri, first mentioned reading Gene Marks’ Forbes article, “If I Was a Poor Black Kid” about a week ago. Since then, I have seen, read and heard a number of references and critiques of the article. Everything from indignation about the white author’s simplistic analysis of the current economic situation to overly sarcastic letters in response to Marks’ suggestions. He is not the first (nor I suspect, last) person to be chastised for giving poor black anyone advice. A tradition that I suspect began shortly after Booker T. Washington’s 1895 speech at the Atlanta Exposition, urging blacks to “cast down your buckets where you are”.

__________After reading the article myself, I don’t understand what all the hysteria or controversy is about. Or maybe I understand, a little.  In Time magazine, the writer Toure, responded to Marks’ article by basically condemning the author for having the audacity to give poor black kids any advice since you know, he’s not black, poor or a kid. How dare he? This kind of hulabaloo is about race and its entangled relationship with social class, when the article, with all its obvious limitation is really about work, and the personal responsibility each of us has to hone our talents in spite of our limitations. Amy Chua caused a similar uproar when she published her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, where she praised the rough discipline of her “Chinese” upbringing over the soft laissez faire parenting of “American” mothers.

__________Take away the element of race/ ethnicity, and it’s really a conversation about class differences …. that is, connections and expectations. But Mark’s article, as trite and superficial as it is, is also most importantly about the work that makes the difference between “getting by” and “being great” at something. The work, the commitment and the vision to bring them together is something that no one can give to any of us. Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book Outliers, that there were plenty of kids who grew up in the same suburbs at the same time as Bill Gates, but it only produced one Bill Gates.  The same can be said nowadays of people from all walks of life, from plenty of places (think Mark Zuckerberg, Sean Carter, Justin Bieber … yes even Bieber).

__________Many minority writers, including myself, who have taken the time and energy to respond to Mr. Marks’ suggestions are obviously seething at the paternalism they sense in his work. The idea that all it takes is hard work to make it in this country, however, is one of our nation’s most treasured myths, along with the notion of the DIY individual and the countless tales of bootstrap pulling. Today we remember Horatio Alger not because he was a great writer, but because he cemented in our collective imaginations the archetype for the American hero … a nobody from nowhere, an outsider who through dint of hard work and personal perseverance casts off that most distasteful of all un-American blemishes: poverty.

__________Mr. Marks could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he had just removed one word from his title and thesis. Of course, this would have meant that no one (including myself) would be talking about the article today, and that’s no way to sell a story. What controversy would anyone find with such cream puff advice such as, “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.” Blah. It’s such a shame that bringing in race is still like throwing a Molotov cocktail into the discussion. But it is and it will remain so as long as class and race are so closely tied together, and as long as we continue to discuss racial groups as monoliths with some sort of essentialist quality that percolates in the blood of each individual.

__________What I found most interesting about Marks’ article was his perfunctory and mostly unintentional revelation that there is a class system at work that most people (black, white, and other) pretend doesn’t exist. He mentions that his own kids have an advantage over the kids in the poor neighboring community just because of where they live and who they’re surrounded by. Then, in the middle of his tips he says this:

  • Most private schools I know are filled to the brim with the 1%.  That’s because these schools are exclusive and expensive, costing anywhere between $20 and $50k per year.  But there’s a secret about them.  Most have scholarship programs.  Most have boards of trustees that want to give opportunities to kids that can’t afford the tuition.  Many would provide funding for not only tuition but also for transportation or even boarding.  Trust me, they want to show diversity.”

__________Three things struck me about this passage. First his admission that most private schools are not filled with the best and brightest students who are there necessarily because they tested in or showed great promise in some field. They are there because they belong to a certain class. Period. Second, the idea that scholarship programs are some sort of secret, even in this day and age of ultra connectedness; some back door entry into the hallowed halls of their privileged institutions. Thirdly, the line “they want to show diversity”. Not they want to be diverse. Not they believe in diversity. They want to “show” diversity. ‘Nuff said.

__________I provide links for all my references, so you can read and decide for yourself how you feel about this all. Thank you for reading and I hope you have a great Sunday.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2011. All rights reserved.

About htwilson

born in brooklyn, raised in queens, massachusetts, that's where I be.
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