A White Writer Gives Advice To A 'Poor Black Kid'

Writer Gene Marks caused a ruckus online with his recent blog post offering advice on how poor back children can succeed in life. He drew a great deal of criticism, including a sharp response from author and blogger Baratunde Thurston of The Onion. Host Michel Martin speaks with Thurston about the controversy.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, more than 20 years ago, a couple of businessmen made an unusual investment. They set aside more than $300,000 to help dozens of kids pay for college who might not have had the chance to go otherwise.

Now, those kids are all grown up and The Washington Post caught up with some of them to see where they are now. We'll follow up, too, in just a few minutes.

But first, what exactly does a kid from a poor neighborhood need to succeed in life? Some may say better schools, more libraries or safer streets. But journalist Gene Marks caused a stir recently with his post for Forbes.com titled, "If I Were a Poor Black Kid." He said, as a poor black kid, he would study hard, use technology to get better grades, go to good schools and learn a skill.

Marks, you should note, is neither poor, nor black, nor a kid. He lets you know that in his article posted on Forbes magazine's website. In fact, he is a white middle-aged business and technology writer and, in the article, he says 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. Technology can help these kids, but only if the kids want to be helped.

Well, response to the article was fast and furious, mostly from other writers. One of them is Baratunde Thurston, who is cofounder of the blog Jack and Jill Politics, digital media director for the satirical publication The Onion, and author of the forthcoming book "How to Be Black." He joined us now from our bureau in New York.

Welcome, Baratunde. Thanks for joining us once again.

BARATUNDE THURSTON: Thank you for having me back. It's always a good time.

MARTIN: Well, thanks. But I do want to mention, for those who are wondering why we're not talking to Gene Marks, we did call him. He did not respond, but he did respond to you eventually and I want to hear about that.

But as we mentioned, this article drew a lot of criticism. You are only one of the writers who wanted to weigh in, but what do you think it is that pushed all these people's buttons?

THURSTON: Well, first of all, I think if you really want to know what poor black kids need, it is for a admittedly disconnected middle-aged white guy to tell them what they need and, once they have that, they're fully empowered to take advantage of all the opportunities this great country has to offer.

MARTIN: And you are being tongue-in-cheek here, I do have to mention, which kind of sums up how you reacted to this piece.

THURSTON: No, it is. I mean, there were a lot of legitimate reactions, sort of - when I say legitimate, I mean direct rebuttals to what Mr. Marks had to offer. There were other satirical takes, some great stories like, you know, if I were a middle-aged white guy, this is what I would do. And I think there are many elements of what was wrong with what he said that all of us were trying to focus on.

The first is there's an admission of ignorance on Gene's part. Look, I'm not poor. I'm not black. I don't know what I'm talking about, but listen to me, kids. So that's already kind of a logical, you know, problem right there. The second is, what you pointed out in the intro, that he goes through all these basic things that poor black kids need to do. He puts himself in their position and says, if I were poor, this is what I would do, and then says, but they probably can't do it anyway because they don't have the brains.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, one other thing that caught my attention is where he said that kids should use Skype to study with people, you know, so that they could...

THURSTON: Yeah, I know.

MARTIN: And I thought to myself, hmm.

THURSTON: It's - you know...

MARTIN: Exactly how is that supposed to work?

THURSTON: The unfortunate part is that there is a - there are core relevant elements to what he had to say. The delivery was completely condescending, in a vacuum and disconnected from the reality. And the idea that you could list a bunch of websites and say, hey, kids, go use FreeCalculator.com, Skype and Google Scholar and you'll be set! - it misses the actual way that people make progress in this society, that it's not just a kid's willpower and access to a few websites which propels you, you know, academically, socioeconomically and politically. But there is a more group mentality and it's the efforts of a group consciously and political change that help those things happen.

MARTIN: One of the things, though - I want to go back to the question of why you think it got the reaction that it did because you say in your own post that you initially wanted to ignore it because you felt that...

THURSTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...in part, that this is part of a - I'll use this word. You didn't use it, but it's part of a scam, basically, increasingly on the blogosphere, that the whole point is to say something as outrageous as possible just so that people will respond, so that you increase your number of hits and that that just kind of gives the thing more of a life of its own. So, initially, you wanted to resist it.

THURSTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: But you found that you could not. How come you couldn't? You just said you had to - why did you finally respond?

THURSTON: There are - you know, people say dumb things on the internet all the time and if, you know, those of us with slightly more intelligence engage that every single time, that's all we would do. Like, I'm trying to live my own life. I'm trying to have a positive existence in the world, so I don't want to spend all my time reacting to incendiary stupidity.

So I think there's a part of self-preservation and kind of allocation of my own resources, I'm like somebody else will deal with this, but it didn't die. And I think where it becomes a problem - not just that it was off base and off-putting, but that the advice was so generic. It's generic advice that anyone should take, but it's not practically applicable, but that people take it seriously, that it starts to affect the conversation and it gives others an excuse to say, yeah, all poor black kids need is a list of websites and some motivation from Gene Marks and, if they really wanted to improve their lives, they would want it more.

MARTIN: And Skype.

THURSTON: His ultimate goal is, like, here's some tools and you need more willpower. Right? You need to want to be poor less and that will unlock the opportunities of this country for you. That is, at best, useless advice. But at worst, dangerous because it sets up an expectation that - oh, the real reason people don't make it ahead in America is because they don't want to make it ahead enough.

MARTIN: So, finally, Baratunde, Gene Marks didn't get back to us. He did not respond to our many queries to him, but he did respond to you. What did he say in response to your piece? He did actually post directly to you. What did he say?

THURSTON: He did not respond in a way that changed or acknowledged what I said. He said he was a big fan of The Onion, which is always nice to hear. I think everyone should be. But he basically restated his case. He's like, I heard what you said, but here's what I say in response. Read my first column. And it was a bulleted list of - if I were a poor black kid, I would study harder, get better grades, use technology to improve those grades, go into a better school and pick up a skill.

And it's like, OK. So we're back at square one or square zero, in fact.

MARTIN: Well, you don't disagree with studying hard.

THURSTON: I don't disagree. Again, I was a poor black kid. Right? And so there's a very personal element to this, as well, for me, which is I grew up in D.C. and I didn't have a ton of resources. I wasn't destitute. We always had food and clothing and a decent shelter, but I was able to make progress because my mom was very involved, because there were community resources. I'm not talking big government spending. I'm talking about the Boy Scouts that I was a part of, the D.C. Youth Orchestra program that I was a part of, Higher Achievement Program, which is an academic sort of booster network.

And it wasn't just my willpower that allowed for my own story. It was the will and effort of the community around me, which had the resources to invest in me collectively.

MARTIN: OK.

THURSTON: And what Gene ignores - and so his advice is useless - he just says, oh, visit this website. Be smarter. Be better. The best...

MARTIN: OK.

THURSTON: ...reaction I got - and we set up this website, PoorBlackKid.com.

MARTIN: OK. Baratunde, very briefly.

THURSTON: Yeah. We set up a website, PoorBlackKid.com, to kind of continue this dialogue and someone said, oh, if you're a - you know, letter to the children of Darfur. A, don't be killed. B, start small businesses.

And it was just like, OK. Starting a small business is great advice, but it misses the point that it's not necessarily a leap you go to from being a child of Darfur to do that. It's not a leap you go to from just being a poor black kid to suddenly decide, I'm going to use all these great tools and better myself. It's much more complicated and, ultimately, he did a disservice to the challenge...

MARTIN: OK.

THURSTON: ...by oversimplifying it.

MARTIN: Baratunde Thurston is cofounder of the blog Jack and Jill Politics. He's director of digital media for The Onion and author of the forthcoming book "How to Be Black," and he joined us from our bureau in New York.

Baratunde, thank you.

THURSTON: As always, a great time. Thank you.

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