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If I Were A Rich White Guy


If I Were a Rich White Guy


A Poor Black Kid

Gene Marks, business owner and column writer for Forbes and the New York Times, has written an excellent piece about how I can overcome the massive structural economic and cultural barriers that make it extremely probable I’ll continue to live a life of poverty here in the slums of West Philadelphia.

Marks points out that if I happen to be a good deal smarter and much luckier than most of my “cohort,” as they say in the University of Pennsylvania sociology class that I will never attend, all I need to do is work extremely hard in school, get my hands on some computer technology one way or another, use it to somewhat magically acquire the cultural capital regarding the world of education that Marks acknowledges was a birthright for his own children, and then squeeze some scholarships out of the limousine liberals on the boards of Choate or Phillips Exeter. This will allow me to get into college, which as Marks is well aware guarantees Americans today a solidly middle class — as a writer for Forbes he defines this as a household income of $250,000 per year or higher — lifestyle.

This is just a terrific set of unspeakably useful suggestions for someone in my admittedly daunting social situation. Thanks rich middle-aged white guy!

Now let me return the favor.

If I were a rich white guy, I would also have a lot to overcome. For instance, I’d have to fight constantly against the massive structural economic and cultural forces that would be constantly impelling me to act like a clueless jackass. These include a cultural ideology that somehow gets people who are not developmentally disabled to believe the thesis of your essay, which can not unfairly be summarized as: “If it’s not literally impossible for a black child born into the world of our poverty-stricken, strictly segregated inner cities to escape that world, this fact has great significance for public policy, and should be highlighted for the purpose of convincing people that the social problem of race-based poverty in America can be overcome through individual effort.

Yep, if I were a rich white guy I might actually get paid cash money to write op-ed pieces based on that proposition. Think I’m exaggerating? Check it out:

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.

All things considered, I have serious doubts regarding the perspicacity of this social analysis. Because after all, Rich White Guy, exactly how many of the kids in my neighborhood are supposed to go to Choate and Princeton, or for that matter Magnet School and Penn State? What about the 99.9% of the kids in my neighborhood for whom your unsolicited self-improvement plan is utterly unrealistic on so many levels that they’re not even worth listing, since they are, if you’re not someone prone to spouting absurd “advice” that could only be a product of a combination of extreme social privilege and money-sheltered ignorance, too obvious to point out?

Here’s your stirring conclusion:

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.

Maybe the biggest problem we face really is ignorance.

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  • UserGoogol

    Your HTML is broken.

    • elm

      I always thought Paul would be the one to break the blog.

  • An excellent demonstration of the limits of technology, Paul.

  • wengler

    Ingratiate yourself to a rich guy and perhaps someday he will put you into a middling position in his organization.

    A new take on a very old American story.

    • Bill Murray

      In the old days saving the rich white guys kid from drowning was required to get that middling position. Now we only require sucking up — see how far we have progressed.

      • Hogan

        This is why colleges no longer have a swimming requirement.

      • Anonymous

        So, what you’re saying is the only link Rich White Fuck needed to provide was to David Brooks’ column?

  • howard

    it never ceases to amaze me how people think that the experience of their immediate social circle is a useful basis for extrapolating out to 300m people.

    speaking of clueless rich white people, i have worked for several billionaires in my time, and one of them (who shall remain nameless due to a non-disclose) was once part of a discussion of a parking lot at a cultural facility and parking for rv’s came up.

    this was only a couple of years ago, and this person: a.) had never heard of rvs; b.) once they were explained, still couldn’t believe it.

  • KSR

    When I saw the Forbes article, my first thought was of “An Open Letter to a Starving Child. They’re equally helpful articles. The problem is only one of them is satirical.

  • Joseph Slater

    This is great.

  • sleepyirv

    When Steven Martin said, “I was born a poor black child” he had at the least the decency to do it in a movie titled “The Jerk”

  • It always astounds me that asshats like Marks thinks the entire country is Lake Woebegone.

    As if poor janitors don’t work hard…

  • Gwen

    This is the story all about how my life got flipped, turned upside down.


    • Coca leaves & Pearls

      That was the whole problem, the playground was where you spent most of your days, instead of working as a school janitor to buy a computer and internet access, you moocher.

  • mpowell

    How can the solution be, “everyone just needs to join the 1%’? How can it not be obvious that’s not going to work out?

    • Paul Campos

      Ask Tom Friedman, if he ever waves down the cab you’re driving.

  • Joshua

    Gene Marks, as a mediocre accountant and white guy, managed to become a successful business owner and Forbes columnist. Yet somehow, this pile of mediocrity thinks he could’ve become one of the poor black community’s rising stars.

    As we speak there are poor black kids struggling who are far superior to Gene Marks. What makes him think that he would “beat” those kids to become, as he puts it, “the best of the worst”?

    What an asshole.

    • Anonymous

      Yes, I always wonder why these asswipes who are so sure that they would have beaten the odds, aren’t,you know, astrophysicists or something.
      I guess I recognize my mediocrity with the advantages that I had.

      • Anonymous

        Too many commas. Oh well, it did come from a mediocre mind.

      • idlemind

        Not a whole lot of money in astrophysics these days.

    • Holden Pattern

      Yeah, the question for me is always “what is the statistically probable outcome for a given population?”

      Upper-middle-class white folks? Statistically probable outcome is generally more upper-middle-classness, with outliers in each direction.

      Poor (black) folks? The statistically probable outcome is very different from upper-middle-class white folks.

      If asshats like Marks were right, the outcomes for people who are born into various circumstances should have at best a weak relationship to the circumstances into which they were born. But oddly, not so much.

      • DrDick

        Given that the US has just about the lowest rate of social mobility in the OECD I suspect they pretty much stay poor.

      • stats

        The data is a bit outdated, circa 2005, but at the time students from the top quintile where overrepresented by a margin of 21% at highly selective universities and students from the bottom quintile were underrepresented by about .6%. The middle quintile was the most underrepresented – 20% of highly qualified high school students but only 12% of enrollees.

        From those numbers it appears the smart hardworking and lucky students in the bottom quintile were already doing almost everything they could to gain admission to highly selective schools. Meanwhile about 37% of students from the upper quintile were admitted to those institutions despite not being deemed highly qualified.

        (Kids from the bottom two quintiles only comprised 18% of high school students deemed highly qualified. No matter how hard the individuals at the top of those cohorts work in high school they can not change the socioeconomic barriers their classmates face.)

  • OK, what if you were a poor, black kid, and a spree shooter came into your school?

    Would you be all, like, KAPOW! BAM! HI-YAH!

    Cuz I’d totally do that.

    • Malaclypse

      Nah, I’d just use Marks as a human shield.

      • Mmmm.

        Because one thing’s for sure: Marks sure does spend a lot of time inside schools full of poor, black kids.

        • He could be lurking in the boys shower

    • MAJeff

      Chewy spree or regular?

      • Regular. Obviously.

        Did you see any nom-nom-nom sounds in my comment?

  • cafl

    I love how Marks pictures inner city kids as having a great study space with a computer available for their extended use where they can take advantage of technology to make up the deficits in their education and family support system. (He does toss off going to the library to use the computer, but has he ever tried to do that for an extended purpose?)

    • Holden Pattern

      Has he been to a school library in a poor neighborhood? Or a public library in a poor neighborhood? I’m guessing not.

      • Hogan

        The regional public library in West Philadelphia is open until 8 pm Tuesdays and Wednesdays, open until 5 pm Thursdays through Saturdays, and closed Sundays and Mondays. But it’s not like these kids are eating dinner anyway, right?

        • Malaclypse

          Are you kidding? They buy t-bone steaks with their food stamps. Have you learned nothing that Reagan taught us?

          • Hogan

            Apparently nowadays they get their steaks from ACORN and the New Black Panther Party, and all they have to do is vote every day.

            • Malaclypse

              And for that, they get bussed to Conshohocken. Let them use the libraries there.

        • DrDick

          I am not sure he has ever been inside a public school in his life.

      • Joshua

        I did volunteer work at the Watts Public Library back in college. It was clean but small. The computers were usually occupied by grungy dudes looking at stuff they shouldn’t be looking at in the library, and were waitlisted anyway. The neighborhood outside was… California slums. You know it when you see it. The library closes at 5:30pm 3x a week and 8pm 2x a week. Not open on Sundays.

        Would Gene Marks want his kid walking home from the Watts Public Library in the dark?

        This is exactly the type of learning environment conducive to overcoming crushing poverty and an indifferent system.

    • mark f

      “Excuse me sir, there are several people in line and these systems are here so everybody gets a chance to do thirty minutes of Facebooking.”

    • seaurch

      You must have missed the part where he recommended that you go buy a cheap computer from TigerDirect.

      What do you mean poor kids can barely afford food? They can just put it on their American Express cards and pay it off later obviously.

      • Anonymous

        Or they may be nourished by the wisdom of an online TED lecture.
        Great stuff!
        I think you can find Bobo there.

      • Joshua

        That reminds me of the SNL Suze Orman skit, where she tells a homeless guy living in garbage that it is time to tap into his emergency savings account, and draw on his pension only if necessary.

    • jmack

      “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity, nothing exceeds most criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.” –Herman Melville

      • DocAmazing

        Food first, then morality.

        –Bertholt Brecht

  • Kadin

    Maybe the biggest problem we face really is ignorance.

    Oh, snap.

  • rea

    Gene Marks has convinced me that we don’t need to do anything to help people who are deaf and blind–look at Helen Keller!

    • mark f

      But how do we convince inner city black deaf, dumb and blind kids that their chances for economic success on the basketball court in the pinball arcades are miniscule?

      • Ah don’t know!

        • Bill Murray

          I must admit that I have not, in fact, seen anything like it

          • Well, he ain’t go no distractions, can’t hear no buzzers and bells.

  • rea

    “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” as Marie-Antoinette never said.

    • Well played!

    • Uncle Kvetch

      “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” as Marie-Antoinette never said.

      Actually, she did.

      • Perfect. Much better than being Rick-rolled!

      • rea

        The fact that Rousseau said it, attributing it to “a great princess,” back when MA was a 14-year old Austrian archduchess, tends to exculpate her.

        • Bill Murray

          That just means that she did not say it first. She was the Carlos Mencia of Princesses

  • ploeg

    If it were really that easy to overcome massive structural economic and cultural barriers was sufficient access to a computer, it would be done by kids in a foreign country with cheaper labor, and you would be shipping your jobs over to those folks.

    • mpowell

      That’s a good point, but not to defend Marks, but the path for a poor kid in the US look different than the upper-middle class Indian kid (who are the ones potentially stealing jobs from Americans). For the former, you have to get into a top-tier US school, which is daunting, but some manage it. Then most of those barriers are less of a problem. For a kid from India, top universities in the US are ridiculously selective. So realistically, you’re looking at India university, maybe US grad school, or start your career in India, get a work VISA, eventually get a green card and finally start getting paid like an American. For an poor kid in the US the big barrier is getting into a good university affordably. For the kid from India it’s probably the work visa. Otherwise you’re probably working at a call center for low wages.

  • Anonymous

    There is so much to pick apart here. I’ll go with the assumption that entree into an elite private school is an unmitigated good. This comes from the mind of someone who cannot see that this hypothetical child’s culture and neighborhood is anything but pathological. He cannot imagine the alienation that might arise from being plopped into the middle of a new world. Nope, it is just smooth sailing from hereon because you’re among the right people!
    Of course these are the same people that would scoff at the suggestion that you move to a lower cost area if 250k a year is just getting by in Stamford.

    • mark f

      Deval Patrick tells a funny story about getting a scholarship to a fancypants boarding school in Massachusetts. He was living in the projects in South Side Chicago (the same complex that gave the world Mr. T and Kirby Puckett, by the way), so it was a pretty big deal. The information sheet for new students mentioned that he would need to bring a jacket . . . so his grandparents took him out and bought him a new windbreaker.

  • R Johnston

    Apparently, all day long Gene Marks biddy biddy bums.

    • rm

      Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum

  • Anonymous

    zomg this is hilarious how did you ever even think of saying such a words

  • This is great news. And to think Technology was all that was needed all along! I can already see the new Apple ad: “Be Better!*”

    *Bootstraps not included

  • This has Oscar-like timing to win “Worst Article of the Year.”

      • She may be the youngest ever to score a lifetime achievement award in the field.

      • Malaclypse

        The fact that McArdle quoted this, and remains, to this day, neither struck by lightning, consumed by brimstone, nor swallowed whole by the earth, is all the proof I need that there is no benevolent, all-powerful God. Seriously, that calls for some serious fucking smiting. Fuck me, that is just plain fucking wrong.

        • That’s like watching A Christmas Carol and thinking Scrooge was a liberal all along.

          • Malaclypse

            I’m thinking it is more like quoting the Beatitudes to justify tax cuts for the wealthy.

            • Blessed are the poor, for they shall fund my retirement

              • Malaclypse

                In that very fucking post, Scalzi writes:

                Being poor is people who have never been poor wondering why you choose to be so.

                Tumbrels, now, please.

          • L2P

            It’s like reading Les Miserables and thinking that Valjean could have avoided all his problems by studying harder at his public high school.

            • Paul Campos

              Bart: Uh, say, are you guys crooks?
              Fat Tony: Bart, is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family?
              Bart: No.
              Fat Tony: Well, suppose you got a large starving family. Is it wrong to steal a truckload of bread to feed them?
              Bart: Uh uh.
              Fat Tony: And, what if your family don’t like bread? They like… cigarettes?
              Bart: I guess that’s okay.
              Fat Tony: Now, what if instead of giving them away, you sold them at a price that was practically giving them away. Would that be a crime, Bart?
              Bart: Hell, no.

          • ploeg

            Scrooge was a liberal. He wanted government to provide workhouses and prisons for the poor.

      • Tom M

        That’s right, go and give her a link so she can rack up more eyeballs. That will show her.
        Roy did it already, and she didn’t deserve the link there, either.

        • Do you really think the number of hits she gets has any correlation to the shit she spews?

          Cuz I’m thinking this is who she is, full stop. Besides, it’s not like she doesn’t sit there and study where those hits are coming from and goes and investigates what’s being said.

          Which is kind of the point of linking to her.

          • Malaclypse

            Yea, but the Atlantic gets paid based on page views, whether those page views are from Corner-reading troglodytes, or from here.

            And I really really doubt that McMegan is reading stuff at Roy’s. Where would she find the time?

            • She has responded to stuff that I TinTin has posted at S.N!, albeit obliquely.

  • David W.

    My sister who teaches high school civics invited one of her state legislators to speak to her class. She also told her students they could ask him questions if they liked and one of those questions was the quality of high school meals, particularly how they were mostly processed food with high fat and salt content. His answer was that they could eat at Subway. My sister told me that over half of her students were in families below the poverty level and that they couldn’t afford to eat out, and that for most of her students their main meals of the day were the breakfast and lunches they had at school. So her legislator’s advice was totally unrealistic and obviously inadequate. I don’t think I need to add that the legislator was also a Republican, but the real problem is that he was totally unaware of the lives these kids were leading, or worse, simply didn’t care.

  • No. No. No.

    I am not reading a column from Megan McArdle titled “What Do Low-Income Communities Need?”

    Not even as research. Not even as comedy.

    Not gonna do it.

    • Malaclypse

      I can answer McArdle’s question. They need tumbrels. Now.

      That post was made of equal parts pure fail, weapons-grade stupid, and unadulterated malice.

      • Bill Murray

        or $1500 robo-mixers

      • sparks

        And whining, we mustn’t forget the whining. I have no interest in her age or her arm injury.

  • cpinva

    all snark aside (admittedly, the snark writes itself), exactly how hard should someone be required to work, in order to escape the grinding, almost socially genetic poverty, of their born circumstances, in this country? should they be expected to spend every moment of their lives, grinding the grind stone, to achieve a minimum level of not-grinding poverty? perhaps only 90% of their total hours on earth should be required, to just barely escape the natural hell they were sired in?

    new law/cpa firm associates are expected to put in a minimum of 3000 billable hours per year, to realistically be considered for the partnership track, but that leaves them with nearly 5800 hours of free time. as well, most of those new associates didn’t come from the mean streets, so they don’t need to show their worth quite as much.

    to follow mr. marks’ “logic”, his target audience (i guess) should be sacrificing their lives, to make their children’s lives easier. ok, i can buy into that, except these people will never be able to have children, lacking minimal amounts of both time & energy required to do so.

    mr. marks (and others of his cohort, to be fair) sets these children a herculean task, while seeing to it they haven’t the resources necessary to have a realistic chance of accomplishing it. hell, even hercules had his great strength, and skills as a god/warrior. these kids have literally nothing, except teachers and parents who struggle, against all odds, to help them.

    and mr. marks actually gets paid to write this?

    • L2P

      He gets paid to comfort the comfortable, and he does that admirably.

      Any rich person can read that article and think, “Hmm. Those poor folk don’t HAVE to be poor; they just aren’t using the good work habits and strategies I used. Granted, I had a teensy bit of help and luck, but wealth abounds! Opportunity is there to be grasped!” Then they can feel perfectly fine about giving a basket of canned goods at Thanksgiving and voting to lower taxes every damn time chance they get.

      That’s his job. He tells comforting “just-so” fables to people with consciences desperately in need of comfort. Same role that McMegan fills, although frankly she’s better at it.

  • chris

    By this logic, since Frederick Douglass escaped slavery and became a great orator, slavery wasn’t really a big deal. Anyone could have escaped it and become successful if they had really wanted to. So, to paraphrase Herman Cain, if you’re not free, blame yourself.

  • bobbyp

    “Marks points out that if I happen to be a good deal smarter and much luckier than most….”

    Well hell, if the Bell Curve and Andrew Sullivan are to be believed, being a lot smarter than that cohort shouldn’t be too much of a problem. And luck? That’s just a numbers game….ask a billion people to give you a million bucks, and sure as shit, one of them will do it.

    Being born white, male, and wealthy? You’ve already won the lotto….all by yourself.

  • …cultural forces that would be constantly impelling me to act like a clueless jackass. These include a cultural ideology that somehow gets people who are not developmentally disabled to believe the thesis of your essay…

    My mother was actually intelligent, but had an emotional IQ of 3 and had so thoroughly internalized the “boot strap” meme, that she would look at footage of starving people sitting around in India or some poor famine stricken African nation and say, “If they’re so hungry, then why don’t they get up and look for work?”

    From the time I was four until the age of fourteen, I did silent, inner face-palms on a near daily basis. It boggles the mind. You have to eat a lot of capitalist dogma donuts to be that lacking in intuition and empathy.

    There was no point in arguing, it would just anger her, but the urge to point out the obvious was just so overwhelming sometimes, I had to go outside and walk it off. Shaking my head. Muttering.

    Somewhere in the ether, all my unspoken retorts like, “STARVING PEOPLE DON’T HAVE ENERGY. FOOD IS FUEL. JESUS CHRIST, MOM!!! YOU CAN’T BE THAT STUPID!”

    • Halloween Jack

      She’s no dumber than Sam Kinison, who used to get big laffs with a similar line about people starving in Ethiopia.

    • mpowell

      You don’t need emotional IQ to understand why her views were idiotic though. It helps to enable you to question the dogmas bred into you, but you can learn to question dogmas based on reason alone as well.

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  • David M. Nieporent

    It’s not clear to me precisely what in Paul Campos’s background gives him his deep insight into life in the slums of West Philadelphia or “the social problem of race-based poverty,” but I do realize that his Masters in English Literature overqualifies him to discuss a”combination of extreme social privilege and money-sheltered ignorance.”

    • R Johnston

      Being a conservative disqualifies you from recognizing, discussing, or in any way understanding snark.

      • I think that comes from being an idiot.


        • R Johnston

          I’ll bet that Dave thinks he’s aware of all internet traditions.

          • Malaclypse

            If you were to, say, google his name and read his published bio, you would find

            Mr. Nieporent also is fluent in matters pertaining to the Internet

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