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Fierce Reaction To 'If I Were A Poor Black Kid'


Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich kicked up some dust recently when he opined that poor kids should be able to work as school janitors to develop a work ethic and avoid becoming, in Gingrich's words, a prostitute or a drug dealer.

This week, a tech writer on Forbes.com is causing a stir in the blogosphere with an advice column titled "If I Were a Poor Black Kid." Gene Marks is not a kid, or black. As he put it, he's middle aged, middle class, and white.

Still, Marks wrote, if he were an inner city kid with few resources, here's some things he'd do - buy a cheap computer, use free technology to study and surf the Web, research private schools to, quote, make them know I exist and that I want to go to their school.

MORNING EDITION commentator John Ridley joined us to offer his take on why this particular blog strikes many as outrageous.

JOHN RIDLEY, BYLINE: Why put yourself in the head of a black kid when you've never been a black kid? Why not just write, hey, here's some advice for any kid who's trying to get ahead. Then beyond that, certainly they're good ideas, but they're easy ideas. They idea that, hey, if you work hard, if you keep your eye on the ball, if you meet the right people, there's an opportunity to get ahead - is that really a surprise to anyone?

There's some things in here, by the way, that some of the ideas that he tries to get to, they just become absurdly humorous. He writes about, hey, if you're a poor kid, get a computer and get online and that will help you. Well, first of all, you know, even the cheapest computer, what, $300? I mean for disadvantaged people it's not that easy.

And, you know, he talks about magnet schools. Magnet school's a great idea, but he doesn't acknowledge that most magnet schools work on the lottery system. So even if you want to get in a magnet school – and believe me, here in California not just poor kids, you know, middle class kids would love to get in these schools – you don't just show up and get in.

MONTAGNE: What about trying to get a scholarship at a private school that wants to boost its diversity...

RIDLEY: ...schools is a great idea. But he doesn't acknowledge that most here in California, not just poor kids, you know, middle class kids would love to get in these schools. You don't just show up and get in.

MONTAGNE: What about trying to get a scholarship at a private school that wants to boost its diversity? One bit of advice was, find out who you need to talk to at the school and go talk to them.

RIDLEY: Yeah. You know, I've served on a diversity committee at a private school. I've served as a chair of a committee of a parents' association at a private school. Private schools try to keep their enrollment limited. The dollars that they have for scholarships are limited. So the idea that a kid from a disadvantaged background can merely show up at a private school and ask for money does not happen.

MONTAGNE: Bill Cosby got in a lot of trouble actually, with the black community, when he offered some of the same advice here, and that is kids basically ought to get with it, learn...


MONTAGNE: ...behave, go to school, be polite, stop wearing low-slung pants.


MONTAGNE: I mean it got really particular.

RIDLEY: Got very particular. And one of the things that he said that was inflammatory to some, was he said that lower economic blacks were not holding up their end of the bargain. The difference is, though, Bill Cosby grew up a disadvantaged black kid. Bill Cosby and his wife Camille have invested tens of millions of dollars of their own money into Historically Black Universities and worked towards providing education for people of color. So they're certainly things that he said where you can go wow, that's, that's a bit much. But at the same time, Bill Cosby is a guy who has been involved in our community for decades.

That's a lot different than a middle-aged white guy who had an epiphany when he decided that he needed something to blog about. And by the way, the author of the poor black kid article is not a writer for Forbes. They are a contributor. And the difference being that the contributors are paid per hit, or paid by how many unique visitors they get to their blog site. And therefore, encouraged to write things that get talked about, because that's how they earn their living. This writer, or this tech writer, his only reason for writing this - I got to get some hits.

MONTAGNE: This blog though, has given us a jumping off place to talk about some really important issues. And obviously, John, there is a huge problem right now over one in three black children, one in three Hispanic, and one in 10 white children live in poverty. In a way, you want to say maybe not this guy, but should it not be acceptable for even a middle-aged white man to talk about how, or possible ways, this could be reversed without being branded somebody who is totally out of touch?

RIDLEY: There are middle-aged white guys. They're old white guys. There are white women. There are Hispanics. There are people all over America right now talking about how to solve the problem. The issue is: if we make it just a black problem, if we make it just a Hispanic problem, we're missing the bigger issues, that there's a problem. And I think the real issue is not that someone is trying to solve a difficult situation that maybe disproportionately blacks will find themselves in, that the fact that an individual tries to solve that issue with the perspective of a middle-aged white guy for a young black kid, or Asian, or Hispanic, or what have you.

MONTAGNE: NPR commentator and screenwriter John Ridley. His new movie, out next month is based on the exploits of the all-black Tuskegee airmen. It's called "Red Tails." We did invite Gene Marks to talk to us. But a spokeswoman said he was not available. Marks has responded to the controversy on the Forbes website writing, I will stick to what I wrote. Oh, except he's coming up with a follow-up piece this Monday.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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