President Obama gave an excellent speech last week in Kansas about inequality in America.
“This is the defining issue of our time.” He said. “This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. Because what’s at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement.”
He’s right. The spread between rich and poor has gotten wider over the decades. And the opportunities for the 99% have become harder to realize.
The President’s speech got me thinking. My kids are no smarter than similar kids their age from the inner city. My kids have it much easier than their counterparts from WestPhiladelphia. The world is not fair to those kids mainly because they had the misfortune of being born two miles away into a more difficult part of the world and with a skin color that makes realizing the opportunities that the President spoke about that much harder. This is a fact. In 2011.
I am not a poor black kid. I am a middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background. So life was easier for me. But that doesn’t mean that the prospects are impossible for those kids from the inner city. It doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities for them. Or that the 1% control the world and the rest of us have to fight over the scraps left behind. I don’t believe that. I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed. Still. In 2011. Even a poor black kid in West Philadelphia.
It takes brains. It takes hard work. It takes a little luck. And a little help from others. It takes the ability and the know-how to use the resources that are available. Like technology. As a person who sells and has worked with technology all my life I also know this.
If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently. I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city. Even the worst have their best. And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities. Getting good grades is the key to having more options. With good grades you can choose different, better paths. If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have.
And I would use the technology available to me as a student. I know a few school teachers and they tell me that many inner city parents usually have or can afford cheap computers and internet service nowadays. That because (and sadly) it’s oftentimes a necessary thing to keep their kids safe at home than on the streets. And libraries and schools have computers available too. Computers can be purchased cheaply at outlets like TigerDirect and Dell’s Outlet. Professional organizations like accountants and architects often offer used computers from their members, sometimes at no cost at all.
If I was a poor black kid I’d use the free technology available to help me study. I’d become expert at Google Scholar. I’d visit study sites like SparkNotes and CliffsNotesto help me understand books. I’d watch relevant teachings on Academic Earth, TEDand the Khan Academy. (I say relevant because some of these lectures may not be related to my work or too advanced for my age. But there are plenty of videos on these sites that are suitable to my studies and would help me stand out.) I would also, when possible, get my books for free at Project Gutenberg and learn how to do research at the CIA World Factbook and Wikipedia to help me with my studies.
I would use homework tools like Backpack, and Diigo to help me store and share my work with other classmates. I would use Skype to study with other students who also want to do well in my school. I would take advantage of study websites like Evernote,Study Rails, Flashcard Machine, Quizlet, and free online calculators.
Is this easy? No it’s not. It’s hard. It takes a special kind of kid to succeed. And to succeed even with these tools is much harder for a black kid from West Philadelphia than a white kid from the suburbs. But it’s not impossible. The tools are there. The technology is there. And the opportunities there.
In Philadelphia, there are nationally recognized magnet schools like Central, Girls High and Masterman. These schools are free. But they are hard to get in to. You need good grades and good test scores. And there are also other good magnet and charter schools in the city. You also need good grades to get into those. In a school system that is so broken these are bright spots. Getting into one of these schools opens up a world of opportunities. More than 90% of the kids that go to Central go on to college. I would use the internet to research each one of these schools so I could find out how I could be admitted. I would find out the names of the admissions people and go to meet with them. If I was a poor black kid I would make it my goal to get into one of these schools.
Or even a private school. Most private schools I know are filled to the brim with the 1%. That’s because these schools are exclusive and expensive, costing anywhere between $20 and $50k per year. But there’s a secret about them. Most have scholarship programs. Most have boards of trustees that want to give opportunities to kids that can’t afford the tuition. Many would provide funding for not only tuition but also for transportation or even boarding. Trust me, they want to show diversity. They want to show smiling, smart kids of many different colors and races on their fundraising brochures. If I was a poor black kid I’d be using technology to research these schools on the internet, too, and making them know that I exist and that I get good grades and want to go to their school.
And once admitted to one of these schools the first person I’d introduce myself to would be the school’s guidance counselor. This is the person who will one day help me go to a college. This is the person who knows everything there is to know about financial aid, grants, minority programs and the like. This is the person who may also know of job programs and co-op learning opportunities that I could participate in. This is the person who could help me get summer employment at a law firm or a business owned by the 1% where I could meet people and show off my stuff.
If I was a poor black kid I would get technical. I would learn software. I would learn how to write code. I would seek out courses in my high school that teaches these skills or figure out where to learn more online. I would study on my own. I would make sure my writing and communication skills stay polished.
Because a poor black kid who gets good grades, has a part time job and becomes proficient with a technical skill will go to college. There is financial aid available. There are programs available. And no matter what he or she majors in that person will have opportunities. They will find jobs in a country of business owners like me who are starved for smart, skilled people. They will succeed.
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 kids from West Philadelphia don’t even know these opportunities exist for them. Many come from single-parent families whose mom or dad (or in many cases their grand mom) is working two jobs to survive and are just (understandably) too plain tired to do anything else in the few short hours they’re home. Many have teachers who are overburdened and too stressed to find the time to help every kid that needs it. Many of these kids don’t have the brains to figure this out themselves – like my kids. Except that my kids are just lucky enough to have parents and a well-funded school system around to push them in the right direction.
Technology can help these kids. But only if the kids want to be helped. Yes, there is much inequality. But the opportunity is still there in this country for those that are smart enough to go for it.
Editor’s note — This post has generated an enormous amount of feedback here on Forbes and across the web. Here are a few of those responses:
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic: A Muscular Empathy
Kelly Virella, Dominion of New York: If I Were The Middle Class White Guy Gene Marks
Cord Jefferson, GOOD: An Ode To A ‘Poor Black Kid’ I Never Knew: HowForbes Gets Poverty Wrong