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.
My point is not to minimize the central role that poor black youth and poor folks generally have to play in changing their lives. As a Baha’i I believe that God expects no less from the poor black kid than from the middle-class, middle-aged white guy. I believe that we are more than the social conditions we find ourselves in by chance, choice, or policy. My point is that justice demands that each of us examine how our choices impact the quality our lives and the lives of our neighbors. This can protect us from the self-righteousness and self-delusion that too often poison the possibilities for change. As ‘Abdu’l-Baha (1844-1921), Head of the Baha’i Faith from 1892-1921 wrote:
“For this reason must all human beings powerfully sustain one another and seek for everlasting life…Let them purify their sight and behold all humankind as leaves and blossoms and fruits of the tree of being. Let them at all times concern themselves with doing a kindly thing for one of their fellows, offering to someone love, consideration, thoughtful help. Let them see no one as their enemy, or as wishing them ill, but think of all humankind as their friends; regarding the alien as an intimate, the stranger as a companion, staying free of prejudice, drawing no lines.”
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