“If I Were A Poor Black Kid …” “If I Were A Slave Owner …”

So, Forbes ran this totally appalling thing titled “If I Were A Poor Black Kid” that is only interesting because of the amount of fail involved. On the bright side (?), at the end of it, they link to some of the outraged responses around the Internet. One of those responses is from Ta-Nehisi Coates. Snip:

When I read this piece I was immediately called back, as I so often am, to my days at Howard and the courses I took looking at slavery. Whenever we discussed the back-breaking conditions, the labor, the sale of family members etc., there was always someone who asserted, roughly, “I couldn’t been no slave. They’d a had to kill me!” I occasionally see a similar response here where someone will assert, with less ego, “Why didn’t the slaves rebel?” More commonly you get people presiding from on high insisting that if they had lived in the antebellum South, they would have freed all of their slaves.

What all these responses have in common is a kind benevolent, and admittedly unintentional, self-aggrandizement. These are not bad people (much as I am sure Mr. Marks isn’t a bad person), but they are people speaking from a gut feeling, a kind of revulsion at a situation which offends our modern morals. In the case of the observer of slavery, it is the chaining and marketing of human flesh. In the case of Mr. Marks, it’s the astonishingly high levels of black poverty.

It is comforting to believe that we, through our sheer will, could transcend these bindings — to believe that if we were slaves, our indomitable courage would have made us Frederick Douglass, if we were slave masters our keen morality would have made us Bobby Carter, that were we poor and black our sense of Protestant industry would be a mighty power sending gang leaders, gang members, hunger, depression and sickle cell into flight. We flatter ourselves, not out of malice, but out of instinct.

Still, we are, in the main, ordinary people living in plush times. We are smart enough to get by, responsible enough to raise a couple of kids, thrifty to sock away for a vacation, and industrious enough to keep the lights on. We like our cars. We love a good cheeseburger. We’d die without air-conditioning. In the great mass of humanity that’s ever lived, we are distinguished only by our creature comforts, but on the whole, mediocre.

That mediocrity is oft-exemplified by the claim that though we are unremarkable in this easy world, something about enslavement, degradation and poverty would make us exemplary. We can barely throw a left hook–but surely we would have beaten Mike Tyson.

… This basic extension of empathy is one of the great barriers in understanding race in this country. I do not mean a soft, flattering, hand-holding empathy. I mean a muscular empathy rooted in curiosity. If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity. The first rule is this–You are not extraordinary. It’s all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it’s much more interesting to assume that you wouldn’t and then ask “Why?”

More here.

70 comments for ““If I Were A Poor Black Kid …” “If I Were A Slave Owner …”

  1. Shelly
    December 14, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    This is brilliant. I work with poor, inner-city minorities, Native Americans, and poor rural whites. The thing I constantly run up against is that outsiders always think it’s easy to get out of the traps those lives bring. I constantly hear “why don’t they just get out”?

    It’s both self-aggrandizement and the blindness that comes with privilege. Even if it is the privilege of having been born “free” in post-War America.

  2. December 14, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    I am descended of those who fought for the South and for the North in the Civil War. But even the ones who fought for the Union never believed that black people were equal to whites. Their decision was motivated based on class resentment, a kind of poverty-driven anger at the planter elite.

    We have to admit that though we live in more enlightened times, we are never far away from sliding into the morass of inhumanity. And as a Quaker, we sometimes romanticize our hand in building the Underground Railroad, while forgetting that Friends did own slaves and many did not willingly give up the practice.

  3. December 14, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    Ta-Nehisi Coates is always brilliant. His writing about why the civil war was not a tragedy is some of the finest modern scholarship I know. I love him to death, and as usual he has something interesting and measured to say about a blithering idiot.

  4. karak
    December 14, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    I always like to hope I’d have the courage, in some small way, to do the right thing.

    The first time I ever realized this for myself was reading a book about WWII, and the risks people took to save the victims of the third Reich, especially the Jews. And it suddenly dawned on me that saving this stranger could cost me my life. Or my mother’s life. And it didn’t suddenly seem so OBVIOUS and easy anymore, and I had to admit I’d keep my head down, try to not to be a target, and pray. A lot.

    So, if I want to pretend I’d be a good person, I’d have to be a good person now. And I have to go to my grave knowing I might not be great, or a saint, but, in small ways that mattered, I did try.

    I’d rather sleep at night believing I tried to be a good person today than pretend I would’ve been an amazing person a century ago.

  5. Azalea
    December 14, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    Whew, this is a tough topic for me. My family history includes ancestors who revolted…and got caught. It also includes ancestors who…ugh.

    I like to think I would have been brave enough to fight, brave enough to do something. I actually had a back and forth with some people over Saartje Baartman. Latel there has been comparison to her as the first “video vixen” and I found that comparison disgusting because as aslave she was undoubtedly forced to do many things and had no say. We have to remember the threats (amputation, torture, death, eatings, rape of not only the “defiant” slave but possibly one of their family members who were not yet sold away) before we can say what we would do.

  6. December 14, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    I love the various takedowns that have been posted about that article. When my daughter (then 8 years old) was studying slavery, she made the standard statement about how she’d free all her slaves. We had a little talk about how perspectives were different then, and things aren’t as simple as they look from here. If it were really so simple to change things like that, history would look very different, as would the world today.

  7. Shelly
    December 14, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    The thing we always have to remember is where you stand depends on where you sit. One thing I like to point out to the “I would never crowd” is that even back then groups who were directly harmed by the elite participated in repression of other groups…and you don’t even have to go poor whites v. blacks…All you have to do is look at the historical relationship between black Americans and Native Americans. Some tribes were enslaved (yes, held in slavery in the south). Some owned slaves themselves (e.g., the Four “Civilized” Tribes). But after the end of slavery, you have a not insignificant amount of former slaves and children of former slaves participating in the rape and pillaging of the West. Not all of them as soldiers, either.

    Of course, if you really want to blow people’s minds, you can talk about free Black Men in the North who owned slaves in the early days of the republic.

  8. Shelly
    December 14, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    PS You don’t even want to get into how Americans acted wrt to the Japanese Internment. And that was our grandparents’ generation.

  9. Kyra
    December 14, 2011 at 10:01 pm

    I’ve been reading a few things about history—Alexander the Great, American slavery, cultures of antiquity, etc—and seeing a repeating theme of how the way things are done, the way people see things, very strongly influences the thought processes of individuals who live in that society. Even the visionaries who see beyond it and change things are still shaped by it, and that limits how far their vision spreads.

    The extent to which people extend to various groups of others a status equal to their own in rights, consideration and assumed competence, and the extent to which they accept and justify cruelty, are key here, and interconnected. There’s a huge ability to separate and dismiss the suffering of another, even to the point where one can fail to see it when it’s in front of oneself, easier than ever if one doesn’t consider the being experiencing the suffering to be worth caring about.

    Ancient Greek soldiers would generally have thought nothing particularly cruel about raping the wives and daughters of defeated enemies. Slave owners thought themselves benevolent and kind even as they sold family members in different directions. Warfare, and sometimes police work, ceases to be murder and becomes target shooting. Rapists and abusers and Nice Guys and everyday dudebros treat women like crap; bankers and insurance executives casually destroy people’s lives in the name of saving money; conservatives and racists and evangelicals express contempt for people of color, the poor, people of other faiths, GLBT people. Modern-day civilians of every political stripe buy clothing and food and other goods that represent the exploited, abused, and underpaid labor of migrant workers, starving foreign sweatshop laborers, and slaves, all conveniently hidden from us by the same wealth that pays the go-between companies. We cherish some animals as pets and kill others for food. If technology ever advances to the point of self-aware computers, our descendants will probably abuse them, too. (Not to say that all these cruelties are equal, but it illustrates how people think of their society’s lesser beings. “Women/slaves/foreigners/enemies/animals/blacks/gays/poor/machines aren’t people like us. What, they suffer? Well, I guess it’s their lot. Our use of them is important.”)

    The amount of cruelty that any given civilization runs on is both so ingrained that removing oneself from it (let alone ending it) seems impossible, and so massive that rationalizing it via erasure, justification, or pretense becomes a necessary part of survival, and the understanding of someone removed from that situation that it is so utterly, horrendously wrong is simply not given room to grow in the first place, in the mind of someone who grows up in it.

    The horrid truth is that most of us would no more be crusaders for racial equality in 1860 or anti-Nazi Germans in 1942 than we are avoiders of technology, commercially-grown food and sweatshop clothing today. We would be, then as now, viewing our surroundings not from the lofty view of a different century or a different culture, but mired in shit you can’t smell because you’ve never smelled the lack of it. The moral clarities we possess are situational, the gifts of our upbringing, and so are our determinations, or the lack thereof, to decide that X is horrible and Y is fine and Z, well, what can you do about Z?

    Even Mount Everest might look like an easy climb when you’re far enough away, but in the thick of things, it’s very, very easy to step back and make the easy choice between what is easy and what is right.

  10. December 15, 2011 at 12:14 am

    A white, middle class male friend of mine has taken particular offense to the fact that the original article is being derided because its author is white and middle class. He argues that because this guy is a tech writer, he brings subject matter expertise to the table and therefore should not be dismissed:

    I’d rather have the discussion about the content of his piece, rather than the idea of him writing it. I am in a business wherein I will often be asked to opine on things that I do not directly experience at all. What I bring to bear on it is subject matter expertise that can allow me to talk about situations in economic terms despite never having personally experienced them.

    Can someone help? I’m absolutely sick of explaining why people in positions of extreme privilege are not qualified to unilaterally tell people who lack that privilege how they should respond to their lack of privilege (this came up last Friday when someone cited a YouTube rant by a white dude as an argument for why I should just shut up and let him make his slut jokes already).

  11. EG
    December 15, 2011 at 1:23 am

    I completely understand this…but I find the opposite to be no less disturbing. A couple years ago, I taught a course in which we read a novel set in Germany during the Holocaust, and we discussed the nature of power, etc., and to a man, if you’ll pardon the expression, every single one of my students felt “following orders” was an acceptable excuse for doing horrific things. Not one thought it was reasonable to hold gentile German citizens to account for the way the majority of them stood by and let their Jewish neighbors, former soldiers, old schoolmates, co-workers, and colleagues be rounded up and murdered. Hey, what else could they do, they all said. I mean, they would have had to risk too much to object. Not one of them thought that taking a moral stand of any kind was even worth considering.

    These were all college students, all of them under the age of 24, the age that we usually associate with high and wild idealism, and they found the idea of taking genuine risks in order to fight atrocity unthinkable.

    What if you had kids? they said. What if you got killed, who would take care of your kids?

    Well, I said, what precisely are you teaching your children when you teach them that it’s OK to act as if other people’s lives are worth less because they are of a different race or religion?

    In a very real way, I would prefer people to at least think that they should behave morally.

    My mother, some years ago, worked with a woman who was an infant in Germany during the Holocaust and whose mother, during her infancy, was a stop on a sort of underground railroad getting Jews out. She ran terrible risks, but she did it anyway, because it was the only acceptable moral thing to do. In the famous Milgram experiments, 35% of the participants refused to administer the higher electric shocks. We need to be studying the psychological make-up of people like that so that we can figure out how to encourage the kind of heroism my mother’s co-worker’s mother demonstrated.

  12. machina
    December 15, 2011 at 3:08 am

    I like the original piece because it answered part of the quoted text, which I think presupposes an oppressive system by bringing up class, with regards to moving into the middle class. Most of the criticism seems to just be pointing out that there’s an oppressive system, which is redundant.

  13. Tei Tetua
    December 15, 2011 at 4:47 am

    Was the German novel ‘Stones from the River’ by Ursula Hegi? I’ve read that too, and I came away thinking it was all very well to tell the story of a father and daughter who risked their lives to save other people, but it would be more intellectually interesting and far more realistic, considering the numbers, to write about people who went along with their society and who were among the persecutors, or at least kept their heads down and did nothing.

    Reading the responses, I was thinking of the Milgram experiment too, and also the Stanford prison experiment:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment

    It’s a good question for anyone: if we think we’d be better than Ms/Mr Average, what’s our reason for thinking so? Plenty of average people have been challenged morally, in experiments or real life, and haven’t done too well.

  14. matlun
    December 15, 2011 at 5:23 am

    Actually, I kind of liked this article.

    I do not think that slavery is a good comparison. When it comes to slavery the opportunity simply is not there. As a slave you will be kept in your place by force. As a poor black kid in the US today you do have the theoretical opportunity to succeed. The chains are mainly built of of culture and psychology.

    I think the main point that is missed by this article is that if I was a poor black kid in Philadelphia I would not be me. Growing up in that environment would have shaped me into a very different person and predicting what that person would do is impossible.

    But then again, this article is more a recommendation on what a poor black kid should do…

  15. Glauke
    December 15, 2011 at 5:46 am

    @14, what bugged me a lot about it, is that the author repeatedly notes that he has no way of knowing what it’s like to be a poor black kid, yet he feels no qualms telling exactly what he or she should do.

    I don’t know what it’s like to be a poor black kid in the US. That’s why I don’t go telling them what to do.

    Which is what the slavery analogy illuminates: when you don’t know the context very well, it’s easy to give these sweeping statements. You should go to school! Of course I would free my slaves!

  16. matlun
    December 15, 2011 at 6:40 am

    Glauke: Which is what the slavery analogy illuminates: when you don’t know the context very well, it’s easy to give these sweeping statements. You should go to school! Of course I would free my slaves!

    But surely we agree that this would have been the morally good thing to do? There is a difference between what you should do and what you can, in practice, be expected to do. Which was a point I was trying to do in my above post.

    One thing I noted from the critics of the piece was that the race issue was large. How much less offensive would it have been if it had just been about class and not mentioned race?

  17. Sheelzebub
    December 15, 2011 at 11:01 am

    matlun: How much less offensive would it have been if it had just been about class and not mentioned race?

    It would have been just as offensive and breath-takingly ignorant, IMO.

  18. benvolio
    December 15, 2011 at 11:05 am

    Over at Tomato Nation, in discussing the Penn State mess, Sarah Bunting said this: “Everyone’s cape flutters attractively in the breeze of the subjunctive.”

  19. December 15, 2011 at 11:07 am

    This is lovely.

  20. orangedesperado
    December 15, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    I found this book thrift shopping : “My Folks Don’t Want Me To Talk About Slavery”. It is transcribed oral accounts, recorded in the 1920’s and 30’s, from people who had been slaves in the southern U.S.. The book was a real eye opener for me. There was a big range of experience — from people who said they had been well treated to other stories that were horrible and heartbreaking. The theory of “just leaving” is easy — but the practicality of this notion is generally hampered by basic survival, family relationships, and the dominant culture.

    * Disclaimer* I know nothing about the editing of the book, and what parts of the accounts were left out, who the interviewer was, and any culturural or social barriers inherent in the information gathering.

  21. Norma
    December 15, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Hobbes: Can someone help?

    Hobbes: As the author of Carefree White Girl points out, Marks’ privilege means he’s unable to apply his expertise helpfully. He argues that West Philadelphia black kids should make use of computers at home and school, without recalling that… you know… they don’t have access to them. Because he’s privileged, e can’t conceive of a life without access to the technology he advocates as crucial for escaping poverty/prejudice.

  22. Siobhan
    December 15, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    if we were slave masters our keen morality would have made us Bobby Carter

    I always ask these people what they are doing to fix the fucked-up shit that’s going on now.

  23. December 15, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    matlun: There is a difference between what you should do and what you can, in practice, be expected to do.

    Well, yeah, to an extent, but should privileged people be talking about what less privileged people should be doing if they don’t know the full reality? I don’t know if you’ve ever read Nickled and Dimed, but Barbara Ehrenreich hit this head on in one of her jobs. A coworker was in a lot of pain (I forget if it was illness or injiry) and couldn’t actually work but still showed up to the job and tried to work. Ehrenreich forced her to take a day off (I think even getting the boss to force her to take a day off if I remember correctly) and the woman almost got fired because of it and lost out on several days pay. Ehrenreich thought she was doing the right thing, and obviously thought the coworker should have been putting her body and health before her job. But that job was the only way she could afford food and housing.

    Basically, I think the Forbes writer and anyone else talking about what less priviledged people should be doing, would be spending their time and energy more wisely if they focused on the people/institutions responsible for the disparities instead of the people making the best choices with the shitty hand they’ve been dealt.

  24. scrumby
    December 15, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    @Tei Tetua: Did we read the same book? Stones From the River was about a girl with dwarfism coming of age in a small middle-class community in WWII era Germany. I seem to remember the text spending a lot of time outlining the excitement most people had towards the rise of Hitler and Nazism, and how even those with misgivings were not willing to speak out. Eventually Trudi the narrator, her father, and a few neighbors realize what kind of horror they are engaging in through their complacency and engage in small acts of resistance but their efforts are hardly great acts of heroism.

  25. Shelly
    December 15, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    Glauke,

    Sorry if this is a bit disjointed, but I wanted to throw this out there before heading out for the day….

    You said this:

    “@14, what bugged me a lot about it, is that the author repeatedly notes that he has no way of knowing what it’s like to be a poor black kid, yet he feels no qualms telling exactly what he or she should do.

    I don’t know what it’s like to be a poor black kid in the US. That’s why I don’t go telling them what to do.”

    I agree with you, but I think that it does present problems for those of us who want to make a difference to the whole of society and are actively trying to do so.

    It also presents problems for a person who may have X dynamic in common with another person, but not the entire dynamic. (e.g., Japanese Americans who were interred in the war advising Muslim Americans on dealing with bigotry, groups fighting rural poverty dealing with groups of different racial makeups, unions representing people with often conflicting goals).

    And, while we have to be aware of our privileges, even when we are not white men of a certain class, we also have to take care that we don’t get into arguments over what type of “outsider” has it worse and what minority dynamic is the hardest to over come. Or forget the things that we have in common. Sometimes we focus too much on what divides us and not enough on the ways in which are paths are the same.

    Western society meddles from a point of privilege all of the time with respect to race, class, center/periphery, rural/suburban/urban, gender and sexuality issues. Because of American history, it’s just glaringly obvious when it’s a privileged white whose made it v. a poor black kid. But is it any better or worse when it is one of the other dynamics at play? Or multiple dynamics?

    Does it matter that the person speaking is not a privileged white man, but someone who has struggled against the “system” but from a different perspective? For example, could a black professor who made it up from the ghetto give advice to a poor kid from Appalachia? To a kid born on the Res? A first generation immigrant fleeing oppression? Can a gay man give advice to a white women wrt to sexism and gender roles? Vice versa? Or are the experiences just too different?

    Or course, there is a fundamentally different dynamic at play when you are talking personal mentorship v. publishing an opinion on the net…but still, should we argue that X oppressed group can’t advise Y oppressed group on an issue that they have in common? (Provided there is actual experience and expertise at play).

    I live in one of the world’s major metropolitan areas that is very slanted to the left, and I hear privileged idiots talk all the time about how X, Y, or Z problem should be solved. It’s great they care, but I wonder sometimes if they care because it makes them feel superior to everyone else instead of caring because the situation is just wrong and meritocracy is better for us all. The same people who rant on how people of color are treated so unjustly will rant and rave about illegals and poor rural whites and how “those people” don’t know what’s good for them and should just listen to us more educated people….or they will talk about how they favor immigration reform but treat their Mexican maids and gardeners like indentured servants.

    Of course, as someone who actually wants to help and has really “made it” up from the near bottom to the near top, I always struggle with what advice I give. I am mixed race, but pass. So I do have a “light-skin” privilege…but I also have experienced DIRECT and permanent personal harm from the government because of the non-white component. (Of a sort very few living people can say they have endured). I also grew up dirt poor and had to really work at getting an education, putting food on my table…I was once homeless. But if you looked at me now, I pass for white, I’m well-off financially, and better-educated than about 95% of the population. If you just looked at me on paper as I am now, you’d just see the privilege and not the history of struggle.

    In contrast, my husband who is obviously minority in appearance was raised in an upper-middle class household in a very liberal area where no one cared about his race at all. In fact, there’s only been one incident in his entire life where it was obvious to him he was an outsider…and that was just discomfort at being in a place where he was the only non-white not working as a servant. (Which no one there cared because he was part of the “in group”). I’m not saying that he never experienced discrimination, just that it wasn’t something that was a driving force shaping how he viewed his life… His PARENTS did experience direct and appreciable harm as a result of their race…they overcame it and gave their children a very privileged upbringing that I never had, even though if you met us, you’d assume I was the privileged one who had been given the “golden ticket”. And you’d be very wrong.

    I’m not saying I’m not privileged because I pass. I know I am. I’m also privileged because I’ve “made it”. But I would not presume that one’s skin color or current privilege status is an automatic disqualification from speaking on an issue anymore than having a darker skin tone (or other relevant trait) would qualify one to speak. To me, it comes down to what issue you are dealing with, what venue it occurs in, and whether the person was asked to speak on the topic or is volunteering their opinion because they think they know better or out a genuine desire to help. It also matters if the person advising is willing to yield to superior experience or knowledge (which to me, can be serious academic research and not just experience).

    So while I would never speak to a poor black kid about being black, I would be able to speak to them about being poor, about having those markers of being poor get in the way of opportunity (e.g., speech, clothing, etc.), about having the government treat you like less than human because of your race, and about how to work the system to get an education.

    Quite frankly, I’ve been actively encouraged to do this from many POC groups I work with because there simply aren’t enough mentors from within the community. That is, of course, once they get past the “looks white and drives an expensive car” and talk to me about my actual experience.

  26. matlun
    December 15, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    groggette: Well, yeah, to an extent, but should privileged people be talking about what less privileged people should be doing if they don’t know the full reality?

    I think I know enough. Of course I may be mistaken in this, but what is the alternative? Never have an opinion on anything unless I am 100% certain? How can we work for improving the situation if we do not even dare to have an opinion about it?

    Especially the racial dynamics of the US is very difficult for me to relate to (since the dynamics here in Europe is very different), but I will still try to form an opinion as an outside observer.

  27. matlun
    December 15, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    groggette: Basically, I think the Forbes writer and anyone else talking about what less priviledged people should be doing, would be spending their time and energy more wisely if they focused on the people/institutions responsible for the disparities instead of the people making the best choices with the shitty hand they’ve been dealt.

    The point is: They are not (typically) making the best choices.

  28. EG
    December 15, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    matlun: The point is: They are not (typically) making the best choices.

    But why would you assume this? Surely they know their options better than you do, and if there are options that they are not aware of, you’re not going to expand their awareness by writing for the readership of Forbes.

  29. December 15, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    As much as the Forbes article pissed me off, I have to admit I’ve been loving all the responses to it. Basically everywhere on the internet I’ve seen witty, insightful responses that totally don’t hesitate to call this dude out for his White Savior Complex.

    Because that’s what this is – it’s not ignorance, or even good intentions gone wrong. This guy is absolutely loving his White Man’s Burden, and he’s milking it for all he’s worth. Watching him get the crap slapped out of him through the internet is just so satisfying, considering how often this kind of crap falls through the cracks and doesn’t get the backlash it deserves.

  30. December 15, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    Best Choice: Leave an abusive partner.
    Reality: Homelessness, poverty, violence, or even death may result from this

    Best Choice: Report your rapist so you can at least try to get them off the street.
    Reality: Your name and reputation gets dragged through the mud. You can lose your job if your rapist is your employer/manager. Your rapist happens to be a cop (or athlete, or politician, or someone otherwise famous)

    Best Choice: Don’t drop out of school.
    Reality: Your family has mouths to feed and rent to pay and you can be making money right now instead of doing calculus.

    The best choice isn’t always black and white.

  31. matlun
    December 15, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    EG: But why would you assume this? Surely they know their options better than you do, and if there are options that they are not aware of, you’re not going to expand their awareness by writing for the readership of Forbes.

    Why do you assume that they understand their options and situation better than I do? Typically kids (poor, black or otherwise) have a rather poor understanding of their situation and longtime options.

    Anyway: Do you actually disagree with my judgment?
    Do you really think that the poor, black kids are typically making the best choices among the options available to them?

    @grogette: You arguing for the situation where (for example) dropping out of school may actually be the best choice. Do you think this is a typical situation?

  32. McAllen
    December 15, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    @matlun: No one always makes the best choices available to them. No one. You can have an entire panel of experts follow you around 24/7 and you’re still going to make mistakes. That’s my problem with this article. The assumption is “All black kids have to do is follow this plan perfectly, from early childhood, and they’ll be able to succeed!” Which, apart from just not being true for a lot of kids, to me is about as useful as saying “If you find a magic lamp you can just wish yourself out of your situation!”

  33. December 15, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    matlun: @grogette: You arguing for the situation where (for example) dropping out of school may actually be the best choice. Do you think this is a typical situation?

    I can’t answer for Grogette, but I see this all the time in my line of work. Why wait to finish school and get a degree so that you *might* get a good job in the future, when your mother is sick and your baby sister is hungry right now? As a matter of fact, that was the situation my dad was in when he was in high school .The only reason he stayed was because a teacher cared about him enough and believed in him enough to help him out.

  34. Kristen J.
    December 15, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    @matlun,

    Making decisions based on a shorter time horizon is often perfectly rational. Bounded rationality theory explores this concept in detail.

  35. Cagey
    December 15, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    matlun: I think I know enough. Of course I may be mistaken in this, but what is the alternative? Never have an opinion on anything unless I am 100% certain? How can we work for improving the situation if we do not even dare to have an opinion about it?

    Especially the racial dynamics of the US is very difficult for me to relate to (since the dynamics here in Europe is very different), but I will still try to form an opinion as an outside observer.

    You are of course free to have an opinion, but at some point you should be able to stop and say “I don’t know as much about this as I think I do” and defer to the opinions of those who have lived in that reality and thus are more equipped to indicate where problems lie. A reason these problems don’t get fixed is because the opinions of people who are more or less removed from the situation are preferred over the opinions of the actual people in the situation.

  36. December 15, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    McAllen: No one always makes the best choices available to them.

    Not only that but why should some people (in this case poor black youth) have to make all the best choices in order to have some success in life. Decisions that are “good enough” should be, well, good enough for more than just middle class white men.

  37. December 15, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    Cagey: A reason these problems don’t get fixed is because the opinions of people who are more or less removed from the situation are preferred over the opinions of the actual people in the situation.

    And yes to this. So much truth.

  38. mad the swine
    December 15, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    “The horrid truth is that most of us would no more be crusaders for racial equality in 1860 or anti-Nazi Germans in 1942 than we are avoiders of technology, commercially-grown food and sweatshop clothing today. We would be, then as now, viewing our surroundings not from the lofty view of a different century or a different culture, but mired in shit you can’t smell because you’ve never smelled the lack of it. ”

    You are correct. And Coates is correct. The fact is, if you have anything in your house with ‘Made In China’ on it, or own any diamonds, or gold jewelry, or a cell phone, or a computer, or if you drink coffee, you’re benefiting from slave labor. You, personally, are morally no better than any plantation owner in the Old South, except that someone else in a different country owns the slaves who bleed and die for your toys.

    Back in the 1800s, the North could oppose slavery in the South because their economies were separate and competitive. What ‘globalism’ and ‘free trade’ have done is make everyone in the First World benefit from the forced labor of the Second and Third. When justice means reducing your own standard of living, damn few people in the West will stand up for justice; and when people in the Second and Third Worlds try to organize, the massacres don’t even make the American newspapers.

  39. Azalea
    December 15, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    OMG

    @matlun:

    You make a good point when you say poor black kids don’t always make the best choices because they are children (and their brains are not yet fully developed, and they are more likely to have less guidance as their parent(s) are spending a LOT of time away from home working to keep a home and food in their bellies).

    However, I call mularky on you thinking you know what’s best for someone you neither know personally or have a shared experience with.

    Many things are easier said than done. The bestw ay to help a child in a bad situation is to give them more options.

    Instead of telling a child, hey stay in school who cares if your family needs the money; try to find a part time job that they could manage while in school or offer help in finding assistance for the family so the child doesn’t need to make a financial contribution.

  40. EG
    December 16, 2011 at 2:31 am

    matlun: Do you really think that the poor, black kids are typically making the best choices among the options available to them?

    Actually, I think they’re making the best choices among the options available to them no less frequently than anybody else does, and I don’t think a rich white guy is going to have any insight at all into why they make choices they do, or how to best address the factors that go into them making these choices.

    Consider the issue of dropping out of school. Many, many public schools in poor areas suck. They objectively suck. They are underfunded. The ceilings have fallen in and/or are leaking. There isn’t any paper in the bathrooms. The classes are overcrowded, with some of them being held in stairwells, and the school is on split-schedule and nobody has his/her own locker and kids are being forced to eat lunch at 9 in the morning. There are fistfights every day and almost no resources for a kid who is falling through the cracks. To get to and from school, the kid has to navigate dangerous areas. And that’s not even touching on whether or not any of the content at the school is interesting, or whether or not graduates from that school actually, realistically, get better jobs.

    Meanwhile, there are younger sisters and brothers at home who are hungry. Parents who are unreliable, or abusive, or wonderful, loving parents who just do not earn enough money. And there’s an opportunity to pick up some extra cash by grabbing a job after school at the local deli or hardware store off the books. So you take it. But sometimes there are rushes, and you have to work late, or get there early, and on top of helping to look after your younger siblings, or your older siblings’ kids, or your own kids, you just no longer have enough time to get your homework done and sleep and work. Something slides. Maybe it’s homework. So you get even less out of school than you did before, and teachers are more likely to punish you or just ignore you and write you off. Or it’s sleep. So you’re even less able to focus in class and you get even less out of school, and sooner or later you fall asleep in class in your teacher makes fun of you. And then your employer says, hey, kid, we’ve got a big rush coming up, can you come in for the whole day Monday and Tuesday next week? Just those two days, I promise. So you do. And your family sure could use the extra cash–maybe one of your younger brothers needs antibiotics for an ear infection. And then you’re even further behind in school.

    And eventually, something has to give. Which is it, school, which sucks, you’re already behind it, and doesn’t actually help you get anywhere reliably, or your job, which puts cash in your pocket and thus food in your mouth and the mouths of your family? And then consider how this scenario plays out for a kid with ADHD, or who falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, or who has bouts of depression.

    This is not an uncommon situation. And telling kids to stay in school without addressing how that’s going to solve the problems besetting them now–not ten years down the line, but right this instant–is just a dickish thing to do.

    mad the swine: You, personally, are morally no better than any plantation owner in the Old South, except that someone else in a different country owns the slaves who bleed and die for your toys.

    Actually, I disagree. Benefitting from slave labor and trying to counteract that is morally different from actually owning and working slaves. Absolute moral good may not exist, but that doesn’t mean there’s no distinction between better and worse. Every man in the US benefits from misogyny and rape culture, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth distinguishing between those who benefit from it because they’re male and live in this culture but who go out of their way to resist misogyny and support women and those who make rape jokes and harrass women on the street and beat and rape their wives.

  41. matlun
    December 16, 2011 at 2:45 am

    Cagey: You are of course free to have an opinion, but at some point you should be able to stop and say “I don’t know as much about this as I think I do” and defer to the opinions of those who have lived in that reality and thus are more equipped to indicate where problems lie.

    An alternative interpretation is that an outsider will have an easier time making an objective analysis. Looking for example at the race question: Who in US could even hope to be objective in that discussion?

    Azalea: However, I call mularky on you thinking you know what’s best for someone you neither know personally or have a shared experience with.

    If we were talking about a specific, individual case you would have a good point. There is so much specific information that it would be very hard to be well enough informed to make this judgment. But we are talking about group dynamics and culture here. The larger perspective. And this culture is very problematic in current day US.

    How these issues should be addressed is a much harder question to answer.

  42. December 16, 2011 at 10:11 am

    matlun: An alternative interpretation is that an outsider will have an easier time making an objective analysis.

    I was going to make a snarky comment along these lines earlier, about how in discussions in sexism those pesky women are just too damn emotional about the whole thing and need a logical man to look at the situation objectively. And then you went and made the arguement seriously.

  43. matlun
    December 16, 2011 at 10:16 am

    @groggette: You are not an “outsider” if you are part of the same power structure. In the US, neither a white or black person will have an objective view of racial politics. A man is not “outside” the power structure of gender politics.

  44. Athenia
    December 16, 2011 at 10:52 am

    What’s so weird about this whole thing is that Obama wasn’t always on the straight narrrow. He didn’t like school. He did drugs. In Dreams of his Father, Obama talks about how his mom was so upset that he wasn’t taking his studies seriously. For Obama, buckling down, put him on the right course.

    It’s good advice, but that’s just one facet of the situation. There are a lot of different hurdles for different people.

  45. December 16, 2011 at 11:10 am

    Why would an objective analysis be the best analysis? The people who are involved would have a higher stake in making what they believe is the right decision. Why should an outsider, who has the privilege of walking away from the problem, be given prevelance over someone who has to stay and deal with the consequences?

  46. Florence
    December 16, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    Matlun, the irony of the author’s advice is that he advises that urban, black, poor children should have the values and resources of white, middle-class, suburban children to succeed. Well, sure, The problem is that these children typically don’t have access to these resources systematically, especially not in Philadelphia, the city he is focusing on. Why? Because the state has drained money and manpower and resources from the schools and libraries ol’ boy thinks these misguided kids should lean on.

    This isn’t a situation where kids are “making bad decisions”. Children don’t have bootstraps. They’re systematically denied the resources we know children in our culture need to succeed, and then we blame them with racist sanctimony, but we call it “laziness” and “bad decisions”.

    Come on, you’re not new around here. Quit it with the feigned ignorance.

  47. EG
    December 16, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    matlun: An alternative interpretation is that an outsider will have an easier time making an objective analysis. Looking for example at the race question: Who in US could even hope to be objective in that discussion?

    What, precisely, is objective in telling other people where their priorities “should” lie, when the person doing the telling has had absolutely no experience whatsoever in having to deal with those pressures and priorities? Ignorance is not objectivity.

  48. matlun
    December 16, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    Angel H.: Why would an objective analysis be the best analysis?

    This does not even make sense to me.
    At least if “good” in “good analysis” means true, then it is obvious.

    Florence: This isn’t a situation where kids are “making bad decisions”.

    Yes it is. The right wing politics of the US does not help the situation, but many poor black kids are clearly making very bad decisions.

    EG: What, precisely, is objective in telling other people where their priorities “should” lie, when the person doing the telling has had absolutely no experience whatsoever in having to deal with those pressures and priorities? Ignorance is not objectivity.

    So your argument is that since I am not well informed enough, the advice/analysis is incorrect? This might be the start of a good argument – could you point to specifics where I am wrong?

    I think it might be more productive to have some kind of discussion about the actual argument as opposed to the meta discussion of who should be allowed to express an opinion.

  49. Florence
    December 16, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    matlun: Yes it is. The right wing politics of the US does not help the situation, but many poor black kids are clearly making very bad decisions.

    Okay then. Perhaps you could enlighten us with the bad decisions that black, urban, poor children are making en masse that are particular to the black, urban, poor, that is keeping them from individually rising up out of the ghetto, and has nothing to do with the systematic denial of resources to black, urban, poor people.

    Please advise.

  50. EG
    December 16, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    matlun: I think it might be more productive to have some kind of discussion about the actual argument as opposed to the meta discussion of who should be allowed to express an opinion.

    Don’t be absurd. Everybody is allowed to express an opinion, and then everybody else is free to roll their eyes and tell them that they’re absurd and have no idea what they’re talking about.

    matlun: So your argument is that since I am not well informed enough, the advice/analysis is incorrect?

    My argument is that an appeal to your “objective” status is bullshit.

  51. matlun
    December 16, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    EG: Everybody is allowed to express an opinion, and then everybody else is free to roll their eyes and tell them that they’re absurd and have no idea what they’re talking about.

    I agree 100%. But I also think it would be better in those cases to point to some specific part where you disagree. Just saying “you have no idea what you are talking about because you are ginger” (or some other irrelevant fact about the person) is rather pointless.

    • December 16, 2011 at 4:11 pm

      I agree 100%. But I also think it would be better in those cases to point to some specific part where you disagree. Just saying “you have no idea what you are talking about because you are ginger” (or some other irrelevant fact about the person) is rather pointless.

      Having red hair would in fact be irrelevant. Being a middle-aged upper-middle-class white man is not, in fact, irrelevant to a conversation about how much a particular person can really know about another’s circumstances.

  52. matlun
    December 16, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    Florence: Okay then. Perhaps you could enlighten us with the bad decisions that black, urban, poor children are making en masse that are particular to the black, urban, poor, that is keeping them from individually rising up out of the ghetto

    They do not attempt to succeed in school and in mainstream society and instead accepts the criminal subculture. See also: The whole Bill Cosby “pound cake speech” brouhaha.

  53. matlun
    December 16, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    @Jill: Not really true. Being ginger would also in practice pretty much mean that the person is not black.

  54. EG
    December 16, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    matlun: They do not attempt to succeed in school and in mainstream society and instead accepts the criminal subculture.

    I suppose this works, given that you left out the part of Florence’s comment that specified that these decisions not be the result of being deprived of resources and opportunity. Their schools suck, by and large, and do not provide a pathway out. Mainstream society rejects them. The criminal subculture actually provides a way for kids to get money, respect, and power. Given those factors, these choices are completely rational.

  55. Florence
    December 16, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    matlun: @Jill: Not really true. Being ginger would also in practice pretty much mean that the person is not black.

    Red hair is not exclusive to white people, son.

  56. Florence
    December 16, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    EG: Given those factors, these choices are completely rational.

    Whoa, cowboy. You’re arguing with logic and not with racism. It’s getting dangerous in here.

  57. matlun
    December 16, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    Florence: Whoa, cowboy. You’re arguing with logic and not with racism. It’s getting dangerous in here.

    Yes, it is an interesting change of pace

  58. matlun
    December 16, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    Florence: Red hair is not exclusive to white people, son.

    True, but the correlation is pretty strong.

    Anyway: If you really think that poor black kids typically make good choices considering the options available to them, then we do have a substantial difference of opinion here.

  59. Miss S
    December 16, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    Matlun your privilege is blinding you to the reality of being a poor black kid. That’s why you see ‘bad decisions’ instead of ‘a fucked up system that denies resources to entire communities and leaves them with fucked up choices.’

    Plenty of people here have taken the time to explain this to you.

    As for rationality: as someone who studied economics I can assure you that choosing to work so that you can eat instead of going to school (which has no immediate payoff) is perfectly rational.

  60. Sisou
    December 16, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    matlun: They do not attempt to succeed in school and in mainstream society and instead accepts the criminal subculture. See also: The whole Bill Cosby “poundcake speech” brouhaha.

    @matlun I don’t know why anyone is taking you seriously. Privilleged is too nice a description for your comments. You are being racist( or self hating) and classist. Period. I am a bit tired of you throwing around culture as if their is something inherently wrong with Black culture. And as if poverty is not generational. Try blaming the culture of white rich men who helped created a world whether getting out of poverty is a miracle. Furthermore, you need to learn what oppressed means because you comments about choices are ridiculous. Oppressed groups by defintion have limited or bad choices. Lastly, slavery is relevant as slavery is one of the many reasons for weath gaps being black and White Americans.

  61. Raja
    December 16, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    Miss S:

    Asforrationality:assomeonewhostudiedeconomicsIcanassureyouthatchoosingtoworksothatyoucaneatinsteadofgoingtoschool(whichhasnoimmediatepayoff)isperfectlyrational.

    Really? I thought this was a no brainer. Guess not for some people.

  62. matlun
    December 17, 2011 at 4:31 am

    Miss S: Matlun your privilege is blinding you to the reality of being a poor black kid. That’s why you see ‘bad decisions’ instead of ‘a fucked up system that denies resources to entire communities and leaves them with fucked up choices.’

    Plenty of people here have taken the time to explain this to you.

    Are the people in question just victims of circumstance?
    I feel that attitude objectifies and it is much better to view them as free agents. Yes, their choices are more limited but they still have choices.

    Miss S: As for rationality: as someone who studied economics I can assure you that choosing to work so that you can eat instead of going to school (which has no immediate payoff) is perfectly rational.

    Clearly if your choice of going to school means starving to death then this would be a poor choice to make. Are you claiming this is the actual situation here?

  63. EG
    December 17, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    matlun: Clearly if your choice of going to school means starving to death then this would be a poor choice to make. Are you claiming this is the actual situation here?

    Right. You’re not really suffering unless you’re starving to death. Need meds? Are you just kind of hungry, all day, every day? Are you so uppity that you want to go to a movie or have a new pair of shoes every so often? Then you’re just making bad choices.

  64. matlun
    December 17, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    @EG: It was obviously a direct response to Miss S post.

    I give up. I do not see this leading anywhere constructive.

  65. EG
    December 17, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    Yes, and Miss S’s comment was pretty clearly a metaphor encompassing material needs in general.

  66. December 18, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    If I were a poor Black kid I’d start a revolution to hold the ruling class accountable for their waste, fraud, abuse of power, scandal, corruption, sexual deviancy, bold-faced lies, media consolidation, welfare for the rich, war profiteering, Enron/others from a corporate crime wave and violations of our Constitution…

  67. December 19, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    Here’s an economist’s response to the article, outlining what a “rational choice” is in this context. The economist also identifies by saying “I was once a poor black kid”:
    http://modeledbehavior.com/2011/12/14/if-i-were-a-poor-black-kid/

  68. Rob in CT
    December 19, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    I love Coates, and this is why. He got to the core conceit of it all. We all would like to think that of course we’d do the right thing, when we’re probably in the middle of failing to do the right thing at present.

    Like me failing to go out and protest in the run-up to the Iraq war, basically because “I’m not the type to protest like that” and I found some of the protestors sorta embarrassing. Weeeeeeaaaaak. I knew the casus belli was total BS and I saw the post-invasion disaster coming. And what did I do? I ranted on some message boards and complained to friends & relatives. I didn’t go to any protests. I didn’t even write letters/emails to my congresscritters. I voted the best I could after the horse was out of the barn, but…

    So I think Coates is bang-on here. We probably aren’t nearly as morally courageous as we fancy ourselves. Would we all have really stood up to the Nazis? Not bloodly likely.

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