From the “I forgot to find time to write about this when it was topical” file:
There was an article on Forbes recently, which missed the point in some interesting and angry-making ways.
In it, the author – a successful, prosperous white guy, despite having less of a grasp on subjunctives than his subeditor – notes the increasingly problematic class divide in the US. He then offers some advice to those from a less privileged background – in particular, “poor black kids” – about working hard and making the most of the opportunities available to them, just like he did.
A lot of the things he suggests are things which would genuinely help the people he’s talking about improve their lives. He has some good ideas on the kinds of things that can affect your success in life, and the skills that can make a huge difference to your life if you learn them early on.
Where he goes wrong is in the implicit fundamental attribution of the problem. Here’s perhaps the most striking example (emphasis mine):
If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently. I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city… If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have.
Now, I went to some great schools. Most of what I know about the kind of schools he’s talking about here I learned from season 4 of The Wire. But based on that, I feel entirely justified in calling total bullshit on his “I wouldn’t care”. You don’t get to pretend you know that for a fact, when you’ve never been to a school where being seen as a smart-ass by your peers can get you stabbed.
There’s a constant theme through the article that these poor black kids would be okay if they just applied themselves. If they committed themselves to self-improvement, the way some white folks he knows have done. The way he would do, if he were a poor black kid.
But of course there’s no way he can know what he’d be doing if he were a poor black kid, because he wouldn’t be him. A lifetime of entirely different peer pressures and privations and societal norms would have turned him into an entirely different person. Life might have taught him that striving for better only leads to you getting knocked down and feeling foolish. Maybe, while he imagines he’d have been on the internet researching local scholarship programmes and studying hard, he’d actually have been looking after his baby sister while his sole parent worked their second job – a situation he acknowledges as a problem for some, but doesn’t seem to put much stock in.
It’s not that all poor people from deprived communities are helpless, or that their behaviours don’t have any effect on their situation. Getting good grades at school is something that will generally have a positive effect on someone’s career prospects. The problem is when you decide that their failure to behave in ways that seem obvious to you is the main thing wrong with their situation. If the only reason poor black kids were faring poorly was that it hadn’t occurred to them to try working hard, then you might have a point. But it’s simply thoughtless to stress most heavily the ways they could be improving themselves to help them succeed, without considering the extent to which they’ve already been failed.