By now you’ve undoubtedly heard of the wretched Gene Marks’ disastrous Forbes.com column, “If I Were A Poor Black Kid.” Far greater minds than mine have already torn it to shreds; Forbes.com’s staff writers already appear to be distancing themselves from the paternalistic “white man’s burden” diatribe. If you want to read it you’ll have to Google it, I won’t add to the article’s hit count (and indeed that appears to Marks’ intent all along, anyway. Nothing generates hits like race-baiting.)
I have a general rule of thumb that if a column is based on the “if” premise, it’s probably not worth reading. Gene Marks wrote about if he were a poor black kid, then went on to list all the awesome things he’d do to make his life better. He’d study really hard and use the free internet at the local library and he’d work his ass off, yada yada. If he were a poor black kid, that’s what Gene Marks would do.
But Gene Marks is not a poor black kid. He’s a balding, middle-aged white guy, a CPA and contributor to Fox News and CNBC who lives in the Philly suburbs. So I have a steaming cup of STFU that has Gene Marks’ name on it. If you were a poor black kid? Right, but you’re not. So you don’t know. So shut the fuck up. Tootles.
Here’s a news flash: I’m not a poor black kid, either. But I know enough about what I don’t know about being a poor black kid never to assume that everyone had the same opportunities as me. I never thought I hit a triple; I always knew I was born on third base. I remember being around seven years old and feeling incredibly amazed and thankful that I wasn’t born a poor black kid in Africa. (I was a weird child. Also, we got National Geographic. Some of those pictures were forever seared on my unconscious.)
So I really don’t get where Gene Marks, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and the rest get their “if only these people would work harder and not steal” crap from. You have to have been drinking some serious American Dream-flavored Kool-Aid to think that hard work and a good education are enough in this world. That’s the bill of goods we’re all sold of course: the fairy tale of the American Dream is as much a part of our psyche as apple pie and baseball. And sure, every now and then someone breaks through to provide a heart-stirring example of what’s possible. It’s not impossible. But lately it’s become really clear to a huge chunk of the populace that the American Dream is growing increasingly out of reach. Such as it ever existed, it’s increasingly unattainable.
This is that awful disconnect that Newt and Gene Marks and the rest don’t get. Those people pooh-poohing Occupy Wall Street until Frank Luntz’s band of merry pollsters told them to cut it out? They don’t get it either. America in 2011 is a hard place. Doors have been closed, ladders have been pulled up. Opportunities that once existed so a poor kid could move up a rung or two on the economic ladder are vanishing. Thirty years of trickle-down economics has only trickled misery and hopelessness down on the masses, while the fat cats at the top gorge on ever bigger shares of the pie.
This is why people are protesting. And this is why chastising poor people for not working hard enough or being lazy is just so offensive. These people who got everything handed to them as part of their birthright don’t need to be lecturing anyone on how to be an American success story. They don’t know. They think our system is so awesome and wonderful but really it’s just been awesome and wonderful for them. Too much depends on the luck of the draw. Just admit it. Horatio Alger wrote fiction for a reason.
What’s so frustrating to me is that it feels like we’ve taken a giant step backwards. Just as we’d gotten to a place where the playing field was getting leveled, a few more doors were cracking open and a few more people were being invited to the table, all of a sudden the powers that be have decided no more. Party’s over, out of time. Back to the end of the line. Suddenly equality is a bad word. Now we’re all about “freedom,” by which we mean, freedom to keep slaving away with nothing to show for it, freedom to be a bigot and an asshole and not get called a racist. Freedom to tell people how they ought to live without having the slightest understanding of how fucking hard it is for a poor black kid to get up and get to school in the mornings.
I mean, I guess this is how empires die. I really don’t get it.