If I Were Well Off White Man

Yesterday, I read If I were a Poor Black Kid and was immediately blown away by the sheer amount of ignorance contained in the piece by Gene Marks, not to mention his apparent lack of imagination or ability to put himself in other’s shoes, a prerequisite I thought for imagining being something you are not. And while the piece speaks to many things that seem to be wrong with the way parts of society view the poor and minorities, and by parts of society, I refer to what would appear to be mainstream Republican views (at least based on the current front-runners in their contest to nominate a Presidential candidate), I want to first acknowledge one problem which may shed some light on how Marks managed to write this piece while still imagining he maintains any intellectual honesty and furthermore, why apparently, none of the editors at Forbes bothered to squash or send it back for some serious re-working.

When it comes to reflecting about the actions and motivations of others and putting oneself in their shoes, amongst other things, there are two words that come into play. Sympathize and empathize. The two words sound similar and have similar meanings. I’ll even bet a good number of people if asked to define them, would either give the same definition, or if different, have a 50/50 shot of getting it right. So, what do they mean? To sympathize is to agree with a sentiment or opinion. To empathize is to understand or share the feelings of another person. Yes, they seem close, but there is a stark distinction. When one experiences empathy, it means that one has actually experience the same or very similar circumstances or situation that leads to the feelings shared or understood with the other person. When one experiences sympathy, it just means that you agree with their feelings about the situation. You get it in theory (or think you do), but you have no visceral experience that could make you understand why.

Here is an example, a friend loses a parent. A person who sympathizes hasn’t experienced loss at that level. They have read about loss, they know what society expects loss will do to a child, they have seen how a few other people have gone through loss, they have imagined what they’d do if they were in that situation. But, they have not actually experienced a loss themselves. A person who empathizes on the other hand has lost someone close to them as well. They understand what their friend is going through because they have actually gone through it as well. Another example, watching your team play a football game. A sympathizer is essentially an armchair quarterback. An empathizer is the actual quarterback.

So, what does this have to do with Marks? Well, from reading the article, he clearly sympathizes with poor black kids, but he doesn’t empathize with them. Not even with just poor kids. And as a result, his opinions about what they should be doing, what should be done, how society should respond are based solely on his own experiences and idealism about people and the world. . . none of which seems to be versed in the reality of someone who actually grew up poor or black or both. This is not to say that you need to have been a poor black kid to be able to generate ideas for how things can be changed for those who are poor and black, but for solutions grounded in reality, you need to have some personal experience. Experience working in such a community, seeing what works and what doesn’t work. Trying to help someone, succeeding and failing.

Engineers (and others) have been designing flying machines on paper for hundreds of years – what really advanced us to the point of having actual airplanes were the work of those who went as far as to actually build them. Chemists and physicists predicted then fought over what elements should be in the periodic table – but only by actually trying to either isolate or create those elements did we vastly increase our knowledge of them and make so many of the advances seen in the past 200 years.

I’d initially planned on going through the article, highlighting some of the more egregious misstatements but as it turns out, Louis Peitzman beat me to it in the aptly titled If I Were A Middle Aged White Man. Instead, I’m going to focus on another aspect of this, which is that the same kind of sentiment both stated in the article and not stated is quite similar to what I feel is the typical or mainstream Republican view of poor people and minorities. And for those of us on the other side, it can be easy to write off some policies or statements with the pen of racism when it turns out the brush of ignorance paints with a much larger stroke.

Pretty much, it goes that based on my life and experiences, black people, minorities, or poor people, disadvantaged as they may be, are pretty much equally equipped to work their way out of their particular situation. And given that I can easily think of ways that a poor black kid can succeed, even in spite of systematic social disadvantages, it begs the question, why doesn’t the black kid or minority do better on average? And since we’ve already established that they have every opportunity to succeed, there is perhaps only one logical conclusion – that there is something about the minority that keeps them from succeeding.

Going back to the periodic table reference, knowledge about how electron orbitals are filled and that elements next to each other on the table are similar and elements in the same column (or group) tend to be similar, scientists expected that one could exchange nearby elements on the table for each other without much change in how they acted chemically or biologically. And it turns out that regardless of how similar elements can look on paper, over even from a certain level of depth, they can still be very different because of information that just wasn’t known. It turns out that there is an effect due to how the nucleus is formed and lots of other factors. Even now, I’m not sure we fully understand the elements.

Though for most of us, the effects of centuries of racism, decimation of family structure, lack of significant positive examples, shortage of communal resources to name a few, are all things that obviously contribute towards the general success or failure of children from a given community. Yet to others, none of those things matter. Because they can point to one person they know who beat the odds. And so if that one person can do it, everyone else can. I like the example that Peitzman gives – that apparently because one person could come up with some world changing invention, all of us could do it too, if only we cared enough about our success. The history of science up until even 50 years ago is totally contrary to this idea and most of what Marks writes in his article. Pretty much, only the rich or well off had the free time to actually pursue the sciences. Advancing one’s knowledge of the world, languages, science, had always been a pursuit of the idle rich. Everyone else was concerned with work to ensure survival.

I’d like to tear into Newt Gingrich in this post as well, but perhaps we’ll save him for another time.

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