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If I were a wealthy white suburbanite

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Small Business expert and contributor to Forbes recently wrote an interesting and compelling article, If I Was a a Poor Black Kid. Piggy-backing on the inspiring and truth-telling recent speech of President Obama about the nation’s economy, Gene Marks, offers his own high-five to the President plus his own recommendations for how people can gain access to the middle-class. Which got me thinking, what would I do to change the realities of the socio-economic equation of this nation?

If I were a wealthy white suburbanite … then I would host holiday coat drives for the inner-city children. I would rally others to contribute money to give away free gadgets and gizmos for them. I would sponsor bus rides and offer them free admission to the science museums. I would come and speak to them at their community events and tell them how much more reading and writing and arithmetic they ought to be doing. I would completely insult them, their families, and their communities by not acknowledging how much work is already being done by their parents, their teachers, their neighbors, community organizations, or their churches like the African Methodist Episcopal Church, or civic organizations like the National Urban League or the NAACP or by chapters of National Pan-hellenic Council, that share these very same messages plus physical, fiscal, and spiritual support and have done so for many, many years. 

The nerve of him (and so many others) who think they can tell other people not only what’s wrong with them, but also rattle off solutions as if it were as easy as casting seeds unto ground and like magic, new crops will sprout! Instantly. Effortlessly. Easy.

What's got me so annoyed?

You don’t know? Other than the fact, this, THIS guy is presenting his thesis to poor black kids about gaining access to the middle-class in which he and his children are so well-rooted, then pull up a chair. Let me count the ways….

1. The author assumes that his nirvana is brand new, as if the fact that poor black inner city kids (or any poor kid, for that matter), have never, ever, never been told to  make education a priority or that education is the key to having more options. Yeah, I guess Carter G. Woodson was just talking into a vacuum or heck, their parents, pastors, teachers, and grannies never said it. Thank you so much Mark Genes, for spelling that out! Whew, that great path to opportunity is crystal clear, now.

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.  Like technology.

2. The assumption that he thinks he really is addressing poor black kids, writing under the tent of FORBES Magazine…Yeah, everybody in the ‘hood reads that.

3. The presumption that being born to a poor or working class family and being black automatically means your values for achievement, success, ambition are low.  Those kids in West Phillies come from communities and have families that want as much as families from his nice neighborhood.

4. He only addresses children in his trope.  Why is he only talking to kids, as if they have no parents or other adults in their lives who want the exact same thing for them?!

My mouth fell open as I read line after-line of his recommendations, imparting his values on them and I have seen it in real life, too.  Individuals and organizations inserting themselves into the lives of needy children, and completely ignoring or even dismissing the parental guardians in their lives.

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.

Privilege: All day, everyday

Gene Marks has a massive dose of privilege syndrome – of the white and middle-class variety.

My kids have it much easier than their counterparts from West Philadelphia.  The world is not fair to those kids mainly because they had the misfortune of being born two miles away into a more difficult part of the world and with a skin color that makes realizing the opportunities that the President spoke about that much harder.

Uh, Mark, your kids have it easier than those West Philly kids because YOU are their father…the same man who writes about Tech and Business for Forbes (the magazine about money and wealth), who is a Certified Public Accountant, and former senior manager at KPMG, and now the owner your own accounting, auditing, and consulting business. Mediocre, my ass!

Gene Marks’ privilege allows him to make self-deprecating comments about himself and still be taken seriously as a professional accountant. Yeah, that trick doesn’t work for the poor kids born 2 miles away with darker skin tones. Heck, that trick doesn’t work for grown black women with PhDs. I’m smart, I know it and have to reassert that fact often.  And the misfortune isn’t the GPS coordinates of where those children were born, it’s about the wealth state they were born into and which neighborhood they occupy which is influenced by the economic resources available to their parents.

Gene Marks (and I have met way too many like him, worked with them, too sadly) has got a really bad case of White (and/or Middle-class) Savior Complex. I think of all of the ways to insult someone, the savior offensive is perhaps the worst and most divisive.  Thanks to a variety of experiences and opportunities of being the sole colored person in the room, I am very sensitive of the Savior-to-all-most-unlike-me.

The sense of privilege that he, a multi-generation white middle class guy has to share his awesome wisdom with all of those ‘poor black socially-orphaned children out there in the West Phillies of the world’ is astounding.  White Daddy has spoken and said you, too, my chillins, can inherit the world, just work, real, real hard for it and maybe you can get a little nibble at the pie in the sky.

Much like the malevolent step-mother in Cinderella who promises the let Cinderella go to the ball, if she does ALL of her chores and doesn’t get into trouble, telling someone working hard is all that it takes is only part of the story.  Cinderella sadly learned that after busting her hump all day, Step-Mother and her daughters of privilege nix all of her dreams of a fair shot.  They throw in last minute obstacles and other excuses of why she still hasn’t earned the right to go to the party.  Plus, what will she wear and how will she get there?

These heffers were playing bald-headed games.

That’s what it’s like growing up as a poor black or brown kid in most cities and other economically distressed places in this nation.  In other words, there’s more to getting a foot-hold in middle class than simply knowing how to use Google Scholar. There are a number of complex and tangle-ly mazes to maneuver when one is climbing up the socioeconomic ladder.  Working hard is important; but let’s not be naïve. Gene Marks gives no real mention of the hard road ahead it will be for this kids like – access to a full range of technology, transportation to these those fancy-pants magnet schools. And what about supplies, equipment, oh and perquisite education just not offered at those lousy public schools.  You see, no matter how hard a kid tries, when the smartest student from a poor-functioning school district walks into my freshman biology class, I can tell.  And from day one, she or he is playing catch-up with the kids who attended those private or suburban school districts.

Are his recommendations for working hard, making good grades, and trying to get into better schools bad? No, not all.  It’s just that those recommendations are being made and followed everyday by poor black kids all over this nation.  If he (and others like him) want to make a real difference in the lives of these communities, then I recommend working with folks and organizations already in place and leveraging that privilege to get more resources to those poorer parts of town.

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. genemarks 3:30 pm 12/13/2011

    THIS is a great post. I still stick to what I wrote, and believe that the opportunity is there for everyone (and much harder for some unfortunately) but your insights are great. Thank you.

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  2. 2. sciliz 4:05 pm 12/13/2011

    The trouble is, of course, he’s right.
    The real problem isn’t inequality. It’s ignorance.

    Like his startling ignorance of the realities of what other people live.

    It’s really like someone starting off an article with “If I were a Native American living in 1605, the first thing I would do is get a smallpox vaccine”.

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  3. 3. DNLee 4:24 pm 12/13/2011

    “If I were a Native American living in 1605, the first thing I would do is get a smallpox vaccine”….MURKED!

    Glad to see you stopped by Gene Marks, but in addition to sticking to what you wrote, I hope you also take something away. And something isn’t just that being poor or black or brown or living in a inner-city or going to a crappy school make it hard for some people. It’s that even you, no ESPECIALLY You, need to recognize that these unfortunate circumstances are unfair and the only real way to eradicate these inequalities are for folks like YOU to insist on making the field fair.

    You see, why should it just be about the poor black kids working hard. ALL of the TIME. ALWAYS. FOREVER. Why couldn’t or wouldn’t someone in your position or YOU, actually offer to create levy some of those obstacles you refer to in your article? Perhaps with the help of Forbes or Fox Business news you could make sure that the kids (and their parents, too – let’s not forget that those poor kids just don’t have good parents, like you) can actually make good on those recommendations of yours.

    Here’s my quick – not a hand-out recommendations for those West Philly kids 2 miles away.

    1. Build, support, finance the infrastructure for for free, wireless broadbands for those communities. That way they can master Google Scholar, learn code, etc.

    2. Offer transportation vouchers or subsidies for people to go to school, interview for jobs, check out those magnet schools, you know gain access to all of that great stuff NOT in their neighborhoods.

    3. Offer business support (tech, mentoring, loans or grants) to small and start-up minority businesses in thhose neighborhoods. That’s a big one I know, but wait, you’re a small business advisor right? Yeah, this would be easy-breezy for you. By fostering real economic opportunities in those neighborhoods, maybe their parents can spend more time with their kids and at the schools improving things.

    4. Or anything else where you actually wield your privilege to *actually* help change the realities that you are quick to admit exist and offer sterile recommendations.

    Privilege Much?

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  4. 4. AlpherBetheGamow123 4:34 pm 12/13/2011

    I absolutely agree with everything that DNLee has said, but would add this: Marks’ providing a grocery list of online learning resources means/accomplishes absolutely nothing – it is a proxy for thinking on his part, a fake gesture at morality and pedagogy, a flagrant exhibition of his own intellectual laziness (for which he was paid by Forbes – *there’s* your object lesson!). Is it really necessary to point out that these resources he cites are no less available to wealthy white suburban kids, millions of whom disregard them while only doing enough to get through school? Is he perfectly unaware that his kids’ wealthy white friends aren’t all of them industrious, perspicacious, well-cultured Americans; but that many will be half-educated boors boosted by nepotism, name-dropping, and a bunch of other ineffable socio-economic factors?

    And when so many of these wealthy kids come to fill the ranks of corporate middle-management – when they’re Forbes readers, lazily scanning the received wisdom dished by writers like Marks – is it like a “consummation devoutly to be wished,” the fulfillment of their special destiny?

    An accountant with a Zarathustra complex sermonizes to “poor black kids” on how-you-can-learn-from-websites-and-win-the-world – Wow, great! I’m only surprised that he didn’t evoke Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, and Herman Cain…

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  5. 5. sharayurkiewicz 5:39 pm 12/13/2011

    Thank you for writing this. The article has been circulating around my medical school class, and I just forwarded along your response.

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  6. 6. ejwillingham 6:43 pm 12/13/2011

    Although I am, according to someone from Ireland today, “white trash” and nowhere near West Philly, I relate to what you say here in terms of Privilege dictating to The Other how The Other can be just like Privilege if only they’d perk up and complete This Simple Checklist that Privilege developed thanks to, well, privilege. It’s grating and condescending, and so much easier than doing things like getting into a community, getting to know people, talking with people, understanding people, grasping that without material resources to allocate toward advancement, all the personal ambition and awareness in the world gets you nothing. I’d snark, but the above commenters have done such an amazing job, there’s no need. You summed it up with this: “There are a number of complex and tangle-ly mazes to maneuver when one is climbing up the socioeconomic ladder.” Reducing that to a simplistic checklist in Forbes is worse than pointless.

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  7. 7. Michele_Busby 11:22 pm 12/13/2011

    “You see, no matter how hard a kid tries, when the smartest student from a poor-functioning school district walks into my freshman biology class, I can tell.”


    I am sure Mr. Marks means well, but he seems to lack any expertise in the area that he is writing about. Some could be easily gained by spending a few years working in the inner city. I did that and it taught me enough to get some idea of how much I don’t know, but not enough to go bossing around poor black kids.

    Nice post.

    -A wealthy white suburbanite

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  8. 8. penmanta 1:01 am 12/14/2011

    Neither of you get it, and as I can tell neither of your commentators get it either. You both sought to boost your audience, I imagine. Therefore, Gene chose to write post in the style of a poor black kid, and you chose to write a post in the form of a wealthy white suburbanite.

    If I were, Gene I would have chose not to write a post about race at all, but instead focused my energy on writing a article about getting kids to do better in school. Because, I’m pretty sure you were once a kid, and have advice to pass on to others.

    If I were, Danielle I would have chose not to write a post about a rebuttal to Gene’s post about race. I would have instead focused my energy on a post that gave suggestions to kids to do better in school, as I was a kid once, and have advice to give away. If I still felt I needed to respond to Gene’s post I would have wrote him a tasteful email. Because that’s what an adult does

    If I were both of you together, I would call myself, ‘Danigen’. I would get together, and do something awesome maybe a technology and science thingy for kids.

    You see I alluded to something in the opening, both you don’t get it. That “it” is you should not assume you know someone based on the color of his or her skin. Because we have bigger problems to deal with as a country, and I refuse to believe that bickering about over a blog, and putting race into solves anything.

    All my best,

    -Young man hoping for brighter future for the country I love.

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  9. 9. scottcody 3:51 am 12/14/2011

    Aside from penmanta’s belief that we’re in a post-racial society, I appreciate all the comments, as well as the article posted here. As a white male who taught in a predominantly Latino and African-American neighborhood for a few years short of a decade, there are so many ways that Gene Marks got it wrong. The only addition I would make to these responses is that mental health plays a significant role in students’ academic performance. Until we start addressing some of these systemic issues (student to counselor ratios in Philadelphia hover around 450:1), we’re limiting the possibilities of what schools can accomplish.

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  10. 10. sciliz 9:32 am 12/14/2011

    I gotta say, I’ve got as much white middle class savior complex as anyone. I just try to refrain from exercising it in quite such a patronizing way. If I ever do, will you please smack some sense into me?

    Anyway in “honor” of Gene Marks, and possibly because I have too much of said savior complex, I decided to make a Donor’s Choose donation to a high poverty school in Philadelphia. I looked for projects using technology and what did I find? There was one where the teacher wanted a tablet. To try to entice the kids to read.

    So yeah, ignorance is the problem. In all my myriad objections to Gene Marks, it never occurred to me that his article wouldn’t reach it’s supposed* audience, not because of the demographics of Forbes readers, but because his supposed audience can’t read.

    *I say supposed because I think the article, in the context of Forbes, does a lot more to try to convince the ‘haves’ of our society that they deserve what they have, than to convince the ‘have nots’ of how to change their status. Because, look, everyone has some opportunities! Nevermind how unfair the starting place is, as long as someone else out there has opportunities that they ‘just don’t want to take advantage of’ you can have as much as you like and never feel the slightest twinge about it.

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  11. 11. DNLee 10:18 am 12/14/2011

    Oh, Penmata, how cute. But let me school you. First of all, who are you to tell me what I do or do not get. Moreover, I’ll ask you to curb your your presumption of self-righteousness and authority over my thoughts, my behavior or my blog contents.

    Responding to a public blog post via another blog post or even comments is a perfectly legitimate and adult way of responding. Privately emailing him would have yielde nothing. One, it makes the conversation and the public framing of the issue one-sided: his presentation would provail. Two, emails are a rather quiet and personal way of communicating. Why would he pick, read, and respond to myy email out of countless others. I was pleasantly surprised that he responded. I’m glad he did. I’m very sad that he didn’t address my (or others) critiques.

    I don’t assume I know someone based on color and I don’t he thinks he does. He merely says how he would feel or go about life IF he happened to be someone (socioeconomically) completely different of who he is now – but he was/is ABSOLUTELY still bringing his white, male, multi-generation baggage/privilege with him as he hypothetically imagines what it would be like to be a poor black kid from West Philly.

    And I’ve got news for you, as a woman, person of color who has achieved some level of success and socioeconomic gaining, I have a better idea of a little about life on different sides of the track, as opposed to contrasting situation. That, penmata is something that persons of privilege often fail to see. I’ve had to maneuver in both worlds, learning subtle and overt behaviors, expectations, language, rules etc for living on both sides of the track. Persons of privilege don’t HAVE to visit the West Phillies of the world to get groceries or a job or go to a better school (as Gene Marks recommends). But more often than not, the families of West Phillies have to go to or through those more prominent areas or professionally interact with people from more affluent communities. It’s called code switching.

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  12. 12. penmanta 12:06 pm 12/14/2011

    Scottcody,I never said we were in a post anything…But as a human being I respect your need to label your self a “white male”..Because no one would have took your comment to heart if you hadn’t..

    Danielle, I wasn’t being cute..Oh and Penmanta does not have a feeling of (usually) smug moral superiority[2] derived from a sense that one’s beliefs, actions, or affiliations are of greater virtue than those of the average person.(wiki definition self-righteousness)..In fact I think I was trying to prevent that from happening in my last comment..Also it was always taught to me to be myself..So the whole idea of ‘code switching’ would never fly for me..Finally, when defending yourself against a claim its usually a good thing not to perform the claim your defending yourself against..”I don’t assume I know someone based on color and I don’t he thinks he does….but he was/is ABSOLUTELY still bringing his white, male, multi-generation baggage/privilege with him as he hypothetically imagines what it would be like to be a poor black kid from West Philly.”(quoted from danielle) Because it tends to confuse, and well than your claim lacks substance

    Ps. I dont have the technology that would allow me to have authority over “my thoughts, my behavior or my blog contents” as you put it. But its a golden idea, and if you have it definitely would patient it.

    All my best,

    -Formerly known as the “Young man hoping for brighter future for the country I love.” But has sense been given the title person who is self righteous,cute and believe we are in a post racial society.(oh an occasionally has authority over other people’s thoughts/blogs…SUPER POWERS ROCK)

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  13. 13. mgoldstein 1:46 pm 12/14/2011

    Can’t resist jumping in since penmata’s latest: “Also it was always taught to me to be myself..So the whole idea of ‘code switching’ would never fly for me..” actually made me laugh out loud. It’s going to be pretty difficult for him to get/keep a job if he talks to his boss the exact same way he talks to his friends late at night!

    Privilege and cultural barriers are hugely important. Going to an Ivy League college was a huge cultural shock for me (a middle-class white girl from a mediocre public school in the northern New England rust belt) – I truly cannot imagine the skill and guts it must take for a poor black kid to surmount just the social barriers, never mind the academic ones. I’ve seen a lot of kids get lost at this step – ones who have worked incredibly, astonishingly hard in high school, can handle the academic load in college, but aren’t prepared for the culture shock. I credit much of my current success (which relies on personal relationships with professors and donors) to the fact that a college friend’s mom taught me how to eat in a fancy restaurant.

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  14. 14. penmanta 3:47 pm 12/14/2011

    Mgoldtein, that’s the thing I’m not talking to my boss any differentially then you,the pope,the president, or the queen of England..What makes them so special?In fact it is a very primitive backward side of the human condition putting people on pedestals for nothing…why was it so important for you to learn how to eat at a fancy restaurant? Should that be prerequisite to be banished from a career. In fact, if I were employer I would value an opinion different of my own, it would show the employee had the ability to think critically about an issue..In fact that thinking usually flourishes in science, and also I want an employer to look at my intellect and nothing else…I leave you with two quotes I live my life by the first is in relationship to being yourself..“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.”RLS…The second is the need to describe yourself i’m a ‘poor black person’,I’m middle class white…blahblah,etc You are a human being with problems just like everyone else in the world some are a little worse the others..1st countries citizens are the lucky ones because we have the opportunity for education mobility, and in many countries thats the not even possible..”Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.” I dont expect everyone to feel the way I do infact I’m against it find your own way, and be proud of it…

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  15. 15. scottcody 5:37 pm 12/14/2011

    Penmata, the whole point is that there are distinct differences living in West Philly, like I do, as a white male than as a person of color. To think otherwise is more than a bit ignorant. Your comment (“I refuse to believe that bickering about over a blog, and putting race into solves anything”) assumes that race isn’t relevant, hence my post-racial comment.

    I feel like I’ve had enough of these conversations to know you won’t see this from my point of view. Still, I’ll continue to say that you can’t deny the fact that race plays a role in our social structure.

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  16. 16. penmanta 6:40 pm 12/14/2011

    My point in “I refuse to believe that bickering…anything” No bickering about things over a blog doesnt solve anything pointe blank…There are still kids in underprivileged neighborhoods doing poorly in there are kids in rich neighborhoods doing poorly..I feel my language was clear on that matter(Please except my apologizes for being blunt)..and I love Louie CK brilliant comedian…

    You re right I wont see from your point of view…
    I also enjoy youtube:


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  17. 17. cadamy 11:15 pm 12/15/2011

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful response to Mr. Marks’ Forbes article. I adopted three poor, black children out of the Oklahoma foster care system, and for him to reel off a list of websites as though that’s all my children (or anyone’s children who face difficulty in their lives) need to succeed was infuriating beyond belief. Again, thank you.

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  18. 18. Helena5555 12:43 pm 12/16/2011

    Maybe if he had titled it something that wasn’t relevent to race like “If I were an inner city kid” or something to that effect it wouldn’t be so offensive. I grew up as a poor white kid from a single immigrant mother who preached exactly the same things he is saying. I had to deal with friends who’s parents worked 2 jobs to support them and couldn’t be around so they got into trouble and I could have fallen into that downward spiral with them. School was hard for me since English wasn’t my first language and my mom couldn’t help me at all since she was still learning the language. But she always made sure I understood those key points about education helping us to stop being poor and I listened to her. I went to college and then grad school and as an adult I’m doing pretty good. I think the points are valid but they apply to everyone who is poor and living in bad ares not just “black kids”.

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  19. 19. sisyphus 10:16 pm 12/18/2011

    Perhaps, maybe, but there are serious problems here as well. First, she never once considers that the white middle class is an oppressed group as well, but only speaks of its privilege. This is victimization, pure and simple. Instead of assessing the origin of coercive power, the author wants us to focus on one particular oppressed group. This only perpetuates class conflict and promotes in-fighting between groups that should be rallying together (with a proper analysis). Second, there is a clear rebuke of theory on the part of the author. She is responding to Marks’ systemic myopia of the problems facing “poor black kids,” but she is also critical of his general stance which is theoretical. Her solution: go to the neighborhoods themselves and help out any way you can to improve the community. Considering the first point I made, this is probably not the best recommendation; praxis without theory is like a blind person swinging at a pinata in a crowded room. Marks blindly speaking from a position of privilege is horrible, but the author here only reinstitutionalizes privilege by making the identity of an oppressed group her pulpit from which she spews normative prescriptions without an objective analysis of power relations.

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  20. 20. DNLee 12:27 pm 12/19/2011

    @Helena, perhaps. The tenets of Marks advise weren’t bad. They are in fact, good points and I often make those same points to young people. My objection is how he offers advice, as if it is as easy as that. I also take clear objection to his assumption that these kids (whether black or not) don’t have families. You say yourself that your mother was your biggest cheerleader. Parents matter and even poor kids have brains. Finally, no one likes being talked down to, no matter how well-intentioned the person is. It’s rude and doesn’t show respect.

    @Sisyphus: You are right, I don’t consider white middle class as an oppressed group. I’m always the first to say that everything is relative, but…yeah, within this context, I can’t stretch my mind to accept this counter-proposal. Yes, I am perpetuating class conflict because it is real. And I don’t know what the solution is. I find myself in the middle of that battle and I own it. I don’t think of it as victimization, especially since I favor self-determination stratgeies for individuals from marginalized groups.

    You’re also right that I don’t offer an objective analysis of power relations. It’s not what I was aiming for in the post or the response. I was simply trying to give Marks a half-way opportunity to show and prove his so-called concern for inner-city kids and trying to level the economic inequality field. Maybe a list of recommendations would be a great response post. One of my readers asked me about that. I participate in a variety of programs that aim to help folks tap into their best selves.
    In the meantime, I think my friend and Tech blogger Anjuan Simmons offers some great ideas for Affluent Whites Who Want to Help Poor Black Kids in Technology

    I think it’s worth checking out.

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