I was a Poor Black Kid

Jakada Imani as kid growing up in Oakland.

When I was in the third grade, I had trouble reading. I mixed up letters and couldn’t spell to save my life. I soon found myself in special education courses. Most of the other students who were tracked in these classes were also poor boys of color. None of us were there because we simply failed to “try.”

Gene Marks, author of the recent “If I were a Poor Black Kid” article in Forbes, seems to think that all that poor Black kids need to do differently to succeed is “be smart enough to go for it.”

I’ll be sure to tell that to students the next time I’m in an classroom that has too many students and too few books.  I know first hand what is like to be tracked for failure.  I graduated school never having read a book cover to cover. When your family, like mine was, is simply trying to survive from day to day, technology and prioritizing good grades can’t compete with concerns about hunger, safety and keeping a roof over your head.

One thing Gene Marks and I do agree on, however, is that the problem is ignorance. Only I define the problem as ignorance of systemic inequality and its impacts.

Having started life a poor Black kid, I realized a few things pretty early - including the fact that I was poor and Black. Growing up in poverty meant options were limited and being Black meant that decades of policies and funding decisions had been designed almost to ensure my failure.

What bothered me the most about Marks’ piece was his over-simplification of solutions for the “the poor black kid.” In short, he tells poor kids they need to be the exception and strive to be exceptional. If the only answer for poor youth is to be the exception to the rule, why aren't we then looking at the rules themselves?

The national challenges posed by tax policy, the off shoring of jobs, failures in education policy and global economic reform can’t be solved simply by a studious child who beats the odds. The fact the my home state, California, spends $7,500K to educate a student and over a $200K to imprison a child, can not be fixed by Google Scholar. The reality that the unemployment rate was in double digits in the Black community before the recession can not be overcome by cheap computers, nor websites, no matter how incredible their search functions are.  Lack of jobs that have a career ladder for advancement can’t by fixed with a Skype account. These are problems that poor kids of every race encounter all over this country.

Mark's "recipe for success" is simply to be exceptional. While ten of thousands black children are exceptional it begs the question: how exceptional do our children have be in order to achieve average middle class success? If you happen to be Black, Latino, Native American or even white and poor, you live in a county that increasing leaves you to the wolves.

This is not the American Dream.

The American Dream, the one that Dr. King spoke of, measured us by the content of our character, offered us an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, education if we were willing to apply ourselves and the assurance that where we started out in life did not have to dictate where we ended up.

What Mr. Marks’ Forbes piece asked us to do it to let that dream die.  By not complaining when powerful corporations interests put Wall Street profits ahead of the well-being of communities. By giving into a system that dictates that some kids, by virtue of their race or zip code, will only have a right to a fair shot if they are smart enough to be exceptional. By not recognizing that poverty is not a crime; it is part of the outcome of social policies that benefit the rich and disenfranche the poor and increasingly the middle class.

Gene also fails to see that this is not just about poor Black kids. While it is true that the recession has disproportionately impacted Black Americans, there are also thousands of middle class white families who are now being pushed into the ranks of the working poor.

While corporate profits are up and executive salaries amount to large fortunes, working people’s wages have lost ground. Thousands of well prepared college students are graduating off a cliff of joblessness.  Millions of hard working Americans lost their jobs, through no fault of their own.

At the same time, we seem to have forgotten that education is not a privilege and schools should be one of our country’s biggest investments. Instead, over the last two decades we have thrown money into prisons at the expense of our schools. For example, California's prison spending has risen 25 times faster than spending on higher education over the last 30 years.

This is not the America I am willing to settle for.  This is not why so many people risked their lives to come here, nor why freed Black people chose to stay here.

Our families came or stayed to help this nation live into its promise.  But to do so, we have to take on income inequality and address the structural inequalities that set up people of color and poor folks to fail.

A just and fair future for Americans will not be won by telling an 8 year old to pick themselves up and tough it out.  We need effective tax policy, properly funded schools, and jobs with living wages and the promise of advancement to allow us to save for our future and our children’s and their children’s. Kids who are born into poor communities should not have to be the exception in order to make it. We should all be rethinking our national values and recommitting ourselves to building a country where everyone has the opportunity to live to their full potential.

Earlier this week, the Congressional Progressive Caucus introduced the RESTORE the American Dream Act for the 99%. This federal bill creates 5 million new jobs in two years, responsibly ends wars and cuts military waste, adds a public option to the Affordable Care Act, and raises new taxes from millionaires and Wall Street. This bill would be an important step to re-funding our schools and re-investing in the futures of all of our nation’s kids- rich and poor.

In California, a proposed Millionaire’s Tax would take important steps in our state to generate much-needed revenues for our schools while creating the jobs our communities so desperately need.

Unlike Gene Marks who puts the problem onto the poor Black youth of our country, I believe it will take all of us to fight economic disparity. As long as too many of us are incarcerated, too many lack access to educational and professional opportunities, and too many of our communities are viewed as the problem rather than as part of the solution, our nation will be hard pressed to fulfill its dream of allowing everyone to reach our potential.