Opinion: If I Were a Rich White Dude

A Response to Forbes columnist Gene Marks

On Monday, Forbes columnist Gene Marks strayed from his usual beat — business technology — to write a column, "If I Were a Poor Black Kid,"  that purports to give advice to poor black youth on how to succeed in life despite the social and economic constraints that they face. Stop what you're doing and take a look.

The column has gone viral, with many decrying it as patronizing and insensitive to the harsh reality faced by lower-income urban households. This is a response to that column, told from the perspective of one of Marks's "poor black kids." Note: Jeff Yang, the author of this response, is not in fact a poor black kid.

President Obama gave an excellent speech last week in Kansas about inequality in America.

"Today, thanks to loopholes and shelters, a quarter of all millionaires now pay lower tax rates than millions of you, millions of middle-class families," he said. "Some billionaires have a tax rate as low as 1%. One percent. That is the height of unfairness. It is wrong. It's wrong that in the United States of America, a teacher or a nurse or a construction worker, maybe earns $50,000 a year, should pay a higher tax rate than somebody raking in $50 million."

He’s right. The spread between rich and poor has gotten wider over the decades. And the opportunities for the 1% have become easier to realize, because of the elimination of decades of protective regulations and an endless flood of lobbyist money into our political system.

The president’s speech got me thinking. Rich white dudes are no dumber than similar people their age from the inner city. Rich white dudes have it much easier than their counterparts from West Philadelphia. But they're ignorant to the basic realities of poverty and inequality in America mainly because they had the fortune of being born two miles away into a more entitled part of the world and with a skin color that makes realizing the opportunities that the president spoke about that much easier. This is a fact. In 2011.

I am not a rich white dude. I am a young black kid who comes from a lower class black background. So life is harder for me. But that doesn’t mean that understanding what my world is like is impossible for dudes from the outer suburbs. It doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities for them to learn. Or that the elite few who've made out like bandits in a disastrous global economy have no eyes to see, ears to hear or hands to help the 99% of Americans who are facing the loss of their jobs, homes and retirements. I don’t believe that. I believe that everyone in this country has the ability to empathize with those in need. Still. In 2011. Even a rich white dude in suburban Philadelphia.

It takes heart. It takes effort. It takes a little thoughtfulness. And a little help from others — maybe a poor black kid like me. It takes the cultural openness and humility to recognize that "simple solutions" may not be as simple as you rich white dudes think. Like technology. As a person whose parents have no job security, no health insurance and wages that barely cover our rent and food, I can tell you that a computer and Internet access aren't our family's top priority. But maybe that's not so obvious.

If I was a rich white dude I would first and most importantly work to make sure I actually saw what it's like to live as a poor black kid myself before I wrote a condescending column about how we should solve "our" problems. I would make it my #1 priority to spend some actual time with a working-class black family. Obviously, I wouldn't know any personally, but I'd outreach to a social services program or an inner city school for help finding one willing to let me talk to them. Even the most privileged and obtuse person can look up the name of a charitable nonprofit in the phone book. And if you're a technology columnist and business consultant, you'll have even more resources: You can use Google!

Getting firsthand insights is the key to writing an informed column. By seeing and talking to actual people facing the actual situation you're covering, you can choose to pen a different, better piece. If you choose to give advice about poverty from the comfort of your heated office, behind your expensive computer, in your ergonomic Aeron chair, you're severely increasing the chances that you'll look like an arrogant, condescending jerk.

And I would use the contacts available to me as a columnist for a magazine for rich white dudes. My school teacher says that columnists usually have or can find all kinds of stuff online these days. That's because (and sadly) it's oftentimes the only way that lazy columnists who don't want to do their own reporting can get data to inform their opinions.

Data can be obtained from places like the National Urban League, which publishes an annual State of Black America report — last year's showed that 16.5 percent of blacks are unemployed, double the rate for white Americans; that the median household income for blacks stands at $34,218, compared to $55,530 for whites; that less than half of blacks own a home compared to three-quarters of white families; that blacks are more than three times as likely to live in poverty. Government organizations like the Department of Commerce offer data about the incredible and disproportionate stress being faced by black Americans during this long-term recession, at no cost at all — you might as well use it, because all of our taxes paid for it. (Yes, lower and middle income folk pay taxes too — in many cases, more taxes than rich white dudes. Just ask that rich white dude Warren Buffett)

If I were a rich white dude, I’d use the free technology available to immerse myself in the reality of an American society with a huge gap between rich and poor — a gap that in most cases has white dudes and black kids on opposite sides, and getting farther apart every day. I'd spend hours on Inequality.org, a website launched by the progressive Institute for Policy Studies that puts a lot of information about this gap thing in one place.

I'd read Jonathan Kozol's books, especially Shame of a Nation and Savage Inequalities, to understand that the schools we poor black kids go to don't necessarily have the equipment, human resources and civic support the schools your kids go to have, and that this makes easy access to study sites and TED and Khan Academy and the CIA World Factbook hard for poor black kids like me. (Oh look — Shame of a Nation is even available on Kindle!)

I'd even use antiquated tools like a "phone" to help me reach and connect with real experts on the topic I'm giving all this advice about: Authors, advocates, even other columnists. Maybe Bob Herbert, who used to be an opinion writer for the New York Times and is now a fellow with the Demos think tank. Or Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald, who's written an ambitious series of columns on programs that are actually having an effect on helping poor black kids — giving them support, training and real social capital, rather than just telling them they're doing it wrong.

Is this easy? Well, yes. At least, it's not hard. It's what most journalists who write for a living do all the time — as opposed to people who write columns part-time as a way to generate leads for their own technology consulting practices. But to succeed as a columnist is a lot easier for a white dude from the suburbs than for a black kid from West Philadelphia. It’s very possible. The tools are there. The technology is there. And the opportunity's there.

In Philadelphia, there are nationally recognized newspapers like the Inquirer. You have columnists like Harold Jackson, who's also the editor of the editorial page. He has a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. And he's written eloquently about race and income inequality in the past, drawing from his own childhood as a poor black kid. Maybe he could give you a few pointers. If I were a rich white dude who wanted to write a column about poor black kids, I'd make it my goal to talk to a Pulitzer Prize winning opinion writer who was once a poor black kid.

Or even talk to a university professor. Many colleges are filled to the brim with smart and experienced academics who've done a lot of work on the topic of race and poverty. That’s because these schools offer them tenure, giving them the ability to focus their attention on areas that ordinary rich white dudes with consulting businesses to run maybe don't have time to research for themselves. Of course, if you don't have the time to research something, maybe you shouldn't be writing about it.

But here's the secret: Academics love to talk to columnists. Trust me, they want the attention. It helps them get funding for to do more research. They want to show clips and coverage from many different publications on their grant proposals. If I was a rich white dude, I'd be using technology to research economics, social studies and public policy programs on the Internet too, and using things like email to let them know that I exist and I write for a magazine for rich white dudes and want to talk to them about certain things that I'm totally ignorant about.

And once I've reached one of these programs, the first person I'd introduce myself to would be the department head. This is the person who will probably be most eager to get his program in a magazine for rich white dudes. This is the person who will know which of his faculty members is best suited for talking to me about poverty, economic inequality, the history of racism and the social dynamics of the inner city. This is the person who may also be able to give me quotes himself. You don't get to be the head of a department if you don't know how to self-promote to institutions that are controlled by the 1%.

If I was a rich white dude I would be compassionate. I would learn sensitivity. I would learn how to write columns that aren't dripping with entitlement. I would seek out opportunities to immerse myself to the real world rather than just surfing the Internet. I would make sure my cultural competency and knowledge of current events is up to date.

Because a rich white dude who puts in the effort on his part time job as a columnist and learns real empathy for those who don't have the advantages that he and his kids have taken for granted could make a difference. He could help his rich white readers understand that the problem poor black kids face isn't a problem of not having the right software, or not working hard enough, or not making the right decisions. He could help them think of real solutions, not indulge their tendency to blame the victims of centuries of social injustice.

President Obama was right in his speech last week. The division between rich and poor is a national problem. But the biggest challenge we face isn’t inequality. It’s ignorance. So many dudes from suburban Philadelphia don’t even know how few opportunities exist for poor black kids like me. Many come from two-parent families whose mom and dad (or in many cases their second mom and dad) are working two jobs to keep up with the Joneses next door and are just (understandably) too focused on aspiration and personal success to give their families any exposure to the realities faced by those who are less well off.

Many believe that they've figured out how society works, and that it's all about sweat and brains and merit, rather than — in many cases — luck, cultural advantage and the social capital that comes with being born a certain color and in a certain class. Some rich white dudes can overcome this sense of privilege. But only if the dudes want to be helped. 

Yes, there is much inequality. And the opportunity is there for those who run this country to help bridge that inequality — if they're compassionate enough to go for it. 

Jeff Yang, Pop & Politics blogger for "It's a Free Country," writes the column Tao Jones for the Wall Street Journal Online. Follow him on Twitter at @originalspin.