Once again, someone has picked up their keyboard and whacked the hornet's nest of contemporary racial discourse in America. This time it was a self-described "short, balding and mediocre certified public accountant", named Gene Marks, writing for Forbes magazine. Marks used the occasion of President Obama's recent speech about inequality to engage in a thought experiment entitled, "If I Were a Poor Black Kid". This experiment yields the following breakthrough insight into escaping poverty:
"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."
Needless to say, this essay prompted some critical responses. Root.com has a nice round-up of some of them. Ranging from profound to funny, they capture the general critique of essays like "If I Were a Poor Black Kid", namely that they fail to take into account the history of racial oppression, contemporary structural inequities and white privilege.
However, I believe that there is truth worth considering in this essay. Changing the woeful conditions under which too many inner-city, poor, black youth live does require intelligence, intense striving, seizing opportunities offered by chance, assistance from others and creatively using available resources. Marks is absolutely right in that regard. What he fails to recognize is that it is the exercise of these virtues in dismantling structural racism that will make the most lasting and meaningful change in the lives of these youth. In this regard it's all of us who need to be smarter and work harder, not just poor black kids. Personal responsibility and social responsibility must go hand in hand if we are to achieve true prosperity for all Americans.