“The very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities.”
“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 (sic) there.”
“Technology can help these kids. But only if the kids want to be helped. Yes, there is much inequality. But the opportunity is still there in this country for those that are smart enough to go for it.”
“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.”
Greg Laden at The X Blog has already taken this essay and shredded it into confetti. In his post, Forbes’ Gene Marks Needs To Check His Priv, he eloquently, vividly, thoroughly points out that these “opportunities” supposedly available to smart, hard-working poor kids are actually virtually non-existent, and are drying up fast. I pretty much just want to say, “Yes. This. Read this.”
But I want to add something as well.
Even in the most idealistic version of Gene Marks’s idealistic vision for Poor Black Kids from the Inner City? You have to be “the best” to even have a shot.
If you’re a child of the 1%, you don’t have to be extraordinary to be successful. If you’re a child of the 1%, and you’re just of average intelligence and average talent and average self-discipline, you’re probably going to do okay.
But if you’re one of Gene Marks’s Poor Black Kids from the Inner City, and you’re of average intelligence and average talent and average self-discipline, you’re almost certainly going to get sucked back down into the vicious circle.
If you’re in the 1%, you get lots of slack, lots of opportunities, lots of second chances. If you’re a Poor Black Kid from the Inner City, you get, at best, one shot to get it right. And you have to do everything perfectly. One screw-up, and you’re toast. And even then, even if you do everything perfectly, you might not get that shot. (Read Laden’s piece for a vivid exploration of that reality.)
And I’ll include myself in that privileged group. I’m very far from the 1%, but I was born into probably the top 30% — at a time in American history, very much unlike today, when being born into the top 30% meant you had a lot of opportunities. So I had the luxury of lots of second chances. I was a smart kid, and I was eager to please, and I worked pretty hard most of the time… but I was far from perfect. And I still did okay — because I had the luxury of second chances. I had the luxury of not getting straight A’s in high school and still getting into a good college, because my family could afford to send me there with only some loans and some financial aid. Once I got to college, I had the luxury of being able to occasionally skip classes, occasionally pull all-nighters and do a half-assed job, occasionally prioritize my romantic drama over my scholastic life, and still stay in college. I had the luxury of being able to live a low-rent Bohemian lifestyle for a decade or so after school, while I honed my writing skills and figured out my passions… because I had the luxury of a family with a little bit of a financial cushion: far from Wall Street, far from the 1%, but enough that they could bail me out if I was having a bad month financially and needed help with the rent. I had the luxury — and it makes me cringe that this is a luxury — of not having an arrest record based purely on the crime of Walking While Black.
I’m good at what I do. On good days, I even think I’m among the best. But I was certainly not the best in grade school, or high school, or college. I was good — but I wasn’t the best. And I didn’t have to be. I didn’t have to be an extraordinary child to have an okay life as an adult.
And that’s one of the most crucial ways we can see discrimination and oppression. Not by how well the best are doing — but by how well the average are doing, and the “reasonably good but not extraordinary,” and the “talented but haven’t yet found their feet.” If Rick Perry can get C’s and D’s at Texas A & M and still be governor of Texas, but a middle school kid in West Philadelphia can get A’s and B’s and still gets stuck in the shitty dead-end high school because the magnet school is only for the very very best… that is a world in which something is profoundly broken. And part of what is so profoundly broken is this idea that Poor Black Kids from the Inner City will do okay if they’re smart and hard-working… and that therefore, by implication, if their lives suck, it’s because they’re stupid and lazy.
So do not bloody well tell us that help is available for kids who “want to be helped.” That loads the blame exactly where it doesn’t belong — on the backs of children. A world in which children have to be perfect in order to have even an outside chance at not getting caught in a glue trap for the rest of their lives is freaking well not a world of “opportunity.”