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December 20, 2011 / Anna Louie Sussman

From the Department of Oh No He Didn’t

If you’ve been hiking in the woods or your power got cut this past week, you may have missed the Gene Marks/If I Was a Poor Black Kid uproar. I’m not even going to get into the substance of the, er, “debate,” such as it were, but suffice to say this is a big case for the DoONHD.

Here’s a link to the piece, and an excerpt to give you the gist:

President Obama was right in his speech last week.  The division between rich and poor is a national problem.  But 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.  Many come from single-parent families whose mom or dad (or in many cases their grand mom) is working two jobs to survive and are just (understandably) too plain tired to do anything else in the few short hours they’re home.  Many have teachers who are overburdened and too stressed to find the time to help every kid that needs it.  Many of these kids don’t have the brains to figure this out themselves – like my kids.  Except that my kids are just lucky enough to have parents and a well-funded school system around to push them in the right direction.

And here are some links that Forbes’ editors have dutifully posted, explaining why each and every one of the preceding words is an embarrassment to the publication and implicitly promising to never let something like this happen again (well, that’s not how they define it, but that’s the sentiment I picked up):

Editor’s note — This post has generated an enormous amount of feedback here on Forbes and across the web. Here are a few of those responses:

Kashmir HillForbes: Trolling The Internet With ‘If I Were A Poor Black Kid’

Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic: A Muscular Empathy

Kelly Virella, Dominion of New York: If I Were The Middle Class White Guy Gene Marks

Cord Jefferson, GOODAn Ode To A ‘Poor Black Kid’ I Never Knew: How Forbes Gets Poverty Wrong

This evening, listening to Tell Me More as I unpacked my groceries, I caught Baratunde Thurston on the program, and was reminded of why sometimes it takes something this bad to inspire something this good. From the Department of Oh Yes He Did (and thank goodness he did):

Dear Mr. Gene Marks,

I am a poor black kid. I don’t have great parental or educational resources. I’m not as smart as your kids. These are facts. In 2011.

The one smart thing I do everyday is read Forbes. It’s what all us poor black kids do. Forbes is constantly reporting on issues of relevance to me and my community. This week, I found your article “If I Were A Poor Black Kid” printed out and slid under my door like all Forbes articles.

I didn’t know any of these opportunities existed. My parents and I were too tired. We were all ignorant, and quite frankly, I could have figured it out sooner on my own if I’d had the brains to do so. Your article provided those brains. It wasn’t about my parents or ways to improve the school system or how to empower the community. It had nothing to do with history or accumulated privilege or social psychology. No, I simply needed to want success more and combine that with technology. You taught me that I can do all this by myself, and I have!

With that one article, you solved the problems of millions. Imagine the good you could do with three or four articles! Please don’t stop with poor black kids! What about children trapped in sex trafficking? How about undocumented migrant workers? And of course, there’s women. Have you ever wondered why there aren’t more women CEOs? I’m sure you have. You’ve thought about everything and figured everything out. You are a great man. Thanks again for teaching me about technology.

There’s also Baratunde’s website, PoorBlackKid.com, where you get to submit questions to a real Poor Black Kid who thinks just like Gene Marks, and another great Tumblr site, IfIWasaPoorBlackKid.com, which (trigger warning) features Gene Marks’ face so many times you may have nightmares. Episodes like this make me profoundly grateful for the humorists among us. Thank you, Baratunde, and others who have conspired to turn this example of hideous bad taste into endless good times (and important lessons) for the rest of us.

I leave you with a taste of Poor Black Kid’s advice to whet your appetite:

Can Poor Black Kids armed with Technical skills save Poor Mexican Kids? Would Mr. Marks even want that?

Mr. Marks believes in the simple power of individual human will combined with TED talks and CliffsNotes to solve income inequality. The question is not “can Poor Black Kids can save Poor Mexican Kids?” The question is: do Poor Mexican Kids want to save themselves?

This TED talk (in Spanish for easier Mexican consumption) should help. Buena suerte!

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