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esterday a white guy named Gene Marks solved the Negro Problem, anew. His solution is outlined in a traffic-getting two-page blog post on Forbes.com, provocatively entitled “If I Was a Poor Black Kid.” Never mind that we’ve been debating this question for about 400 years, and that for the past 150 years, conservatives have been basically telling us the same thing that Marks does.
Never mind that it’s incredibly paternalistic to pen an open-letter to poor black people instructing them in the finer points of being good Negros. Never mind that people who actually want to help get in the trenches and volunteer their time or donate their money. Marks went there anyway. And these are the highlights of what he came up with:
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.
If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible.
If I was a poor black kid I’d use the free technology available to help me study. I’d become expert at Google Scholar.
Is this easy? No it’s not. It’s hard. It takes a special kind of kid to succeed.
The division between rich and poor is a national problem. But the biggest challenge we face isn’t inequality. It’s ignorance. So many kids from West Philadelphia don’t even know these opportunities exist for them.
Technology can help these kids. But only if the kids want to be helped.
Before I begin to critique this article, let me crack my knuckles, and say first, that I love his blog post, because its simplistic analysis is the perfect target for a rebuttal.
Now, it’s obvious that hard work, intelligence, and assistance from others are necessary to succeed. I grew up in a trailer in rural Alabama and I graduated from Stanford University. I am publishing this blog post at a start-up magazine that I founded with capital that I — along with my African-American husband, a Brown University graduate — saved from our wage earnings. We work hard and our families have always worked hard too (See slavery). The problem is that Marks seems to think it’s okay to require black kids to be “special” to “succeed.” I don’t.
The economic and social policies that require black children to be “special” to succeed in America made a lot of sense to the racist lawmakers who designed them during Reconstruction. When they sat down after the Civil War to decide how freed slaves and southern whites would interact, Congress explicitly rejected proposals to level the playing field between them, refusing to provide blacks with land, reparations, or equal education. They did not want to create actual equality between blacks and whites. In fact, at the time, many Americans still believed that black people were genetically inferior and therefore incapable of achieving equality. As the Reverend Jared Waterbell, a northern liberal writing for the American Tract Society, opined in 1865, “Hence, even with strenuous efforts for their improvement, the African race must still acknowledge the superiority of the Saxon race.”
In lieu of equality, Congress opted to give black people so-called ‘equality before the law,’ and began amending federal law to give our ancestors the same rights on-paper as whites. We all know what happened next. For the first 100 years, the U.S. government didn’t actually enforce the laws at all, giving rise to the Civil Rights Movement. But even more important than their failure to enforce those laws is this: those lawmakers knew full-well that equal rights would never create equality between blacks and whites, and for most of them, that was precisely the appeal of the policy. Even Thaddeus Stevens, then the most powerful and vocal proponent of black rights in the House of Representatives, assured his fellow Congressmen that equal opportunity for blacks wouldn’t jeopardize white status. “Any who are afraid of the rivalry of the black man in office or in business, have nothing to fear” and should know that “there is no danger that his white neighbors will prefer his African rivals to himself.”
The architects of equality before the law, or equality of opportunity, knew that it would only allow a few special black people to succeed, and shrugged their shoulders about the rest. As the Reverend Horace James, the former Superintendent of Negro Affairs in North Carolina, said in 1865, “Give the colored man equality, not of social condition, but equality before the law, and if he proves himself the superior of the Anglo Saxon, who can hinder it? If he falls below him, who can help it?” (Side note: lynch mobs were the south’s response to the question who can hinder successful black people.)