Sharpen Those Pen Nibs, Lad! (Or: Gene Marks Feels Their Pain)

I wasn’t going to post anything about Gene Marks’ ridiculous Forbes column of the other day,  “If I were a poor black kid,” which told disadvantaged young people that if they study a lot and use lots and lots of technology, they will transcend the immense structural inequities that shape America today (oh wait, I think “immense structural inequities” might be my wording, not his…)

This was partly because I think Baratunde Thurston did a fine job in a CNN column puncturing Marks’ naïve and pompous “advice”…advice which basically could have come from the mouth of an industrialist talking to an office boy in a bad 19th century novel: “Work hard and keep your pen nibs sharpened, lad, and you’ll go far!”

But there is something so manipulative about Marks’ subsequent response to Thurston, so mistaken in its invocations of technology,  that I want to weigh in.

In his response, Marks repeats his original bullet points, each more reductive than the last, each denying the fact that kids in weak school systems can never achieve these goals simply by sheer force of will.

Here’s Marks’ advice, each “tip” followed by my thoughts:

  • “1. Study hard and get good grades.”  […In which Marks ignores the challenges faced by kids attending underfunded schools operating with huge classes and poor instructional materials, or living with overworked parents who need the kids’ help after school to care for siblings…]
  • “2. Use technology to help you get good grades.” [Ignoring the fact that many school systems can afford neither cutting edge technology nor the staff hours to maintain it and (this is crucial) to instruct students in its effective use; access is NOT inclusion, as Virginia Eubank’s book, Digital Dead End helps us see. Undergraduates need guidance in using Google Scholar; how would a middle- or high-schooler figure it out on her own as Marks’ original column suggests she do? That column shows the depth of his ignorance about how pupils learn to think critically and vet resources.]
  • “3. Apply to the best schools you can.” [Because to Marks, just believing in yourself apparently makes up for the challenges I just listed under “1” and “2”]
  • “4. Get help from a school’s guidance counselor.” [Because, as in the corporate world Marks inhabits, it is not what you know but who you know…? Does he really think the kids are actively avoiding services that are being offered to them?]

The brevity of each point is itself insulting, a gesture that condescends by simplifying.  So it is not surprising when we then read that Marks feels the kids’ pain:

  • “5. Learn a good skill. This is what I said in my blog. I said this wasn’t easy. It’s brutally hard. “

“Brutally hard”, Mr. Marks? Maybe that’s a clue that this is not about the kids’ lack of  discipline and fortitude.

As I’ve written before  in this blog, analyses like Marks’ put tremendous faith in existing systems of education and employment, with technology privileged as a cure-all.  Alongside such conservative logic,  his compassion rings false, to the last note of the response:

“Will any of these kids read what I wrote in Forbes? Probably not. I’m hoping that educators, bloggers and most importantly parents do. Because it will be very tough for any kid to do it alone.”

“Tough,” it certainly is, for many kids of color or low socioeconomic standing striving to find equitable educational opportunities in the United States.  Too bad Marks displays no historical or political perspective on what makes it so; he could start by looking at his own thinking on the problem,  I’m afraid.

It’s Always Sunny in California: CNN on Race, continued

If you have ever seen an episode of “Chopped,” or “Project Runway,” you have a nearly perfect audio and visual image of “The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley,” Part 4 of CNN’s  “Black in America” documentary series that aired this evening.  And if you are cringing a bit at the idea of a competitive reality show about being a black tech entrepreneur in America, join the club.

The show followed 8 African American tech innovators seeking investors, gathered for 9 weeks in a ranch house in Mountain View, California, and filmed throughout by CNN. The group of aspiring start-up founders enlisted for this “New Media Accelerator” were provided with guidance from established investors and corporate representatives. We watch the 8 founders energetically prepare for a “Demo Day” to be staged at the end of the 9 weeks: the opportunity to pitch their various ideas to a room full of venture capitalists. Stress builds, narrator Soledad O’Brien tells us, as the clock counts down (wait, did I accidentally switch to the Food Channel??).  The terms “winners” and “losers” are never used, perhaps because they would be too distastefully suggestive of a pagent or talent show, but the program builds to the final “reveal” that 2 of the 8 projects have received funding to date.

This is of course a documentary only in the sense that any other competition-based reality show is. With dramatic music, quick edits, ominous voice-over narration, and the false suspense that reality shows cultivate to keep us watching, intriguing features of participants’ technical aims or market outlooks were barely discussed. Instead, nearly every minute of the film defaulted to a tidy, scripted take-away: Individual talent, fortitude, and market savvy are what determine success and failure in America. During the hour, race was intermittently depicted as a burden for black Americans. Statistics about low African American representation in high-tech industries were quoted, and one participant was revealed to have been stopped by Mountain View police one night for “walking while black.”   A number of the participants also reflected on the rarity of minority presence in America’s tech sector, and some mentioned economic or other adversity they have faced in their lives.  But precisely because those highly personal narratives predominated, as is the norm in any heavily edited reality show (one entrepreneur was identified repeatedly as a single mother of 3; another as hoping to buy a house for his mother), by far the loudest message of the show is that the sorting mechanisms of innate talent and fortitude overwhelm any structural impediments to economic or intellectual fulfillment in America.

Let’s be clear: the ostensible good fortune of receiving CNN’s deus-ex-machina-like attention plays no small part in this hour-long drama of adversity and attainment.  The oft-repeated nickname for the 9-week project, “NewMe,”  is not CNN’s invention but if positioning this program as a  make-over opportunity for marginalized or under-achieving aspirants is what the producers had in mind, that title certainly doesn’t hurt. (It isn’t  clear how  Angela Benton,  who is both a participating entrepreneur and a founder of the NewMe program, came to be the subject of CNN’s film, but the music alone confirms the network’s dramatic intentions in featuring her undertaking as representative of racialized experiences in Silicon Valley.)

We can certainly agree with one of the participating inventors that this unprecedented media exposure for black entrepreneurs  may inspire  minority youngsters otherwise unaware of such role models.  And it seems petty to complain that the show has gotten a huge amount of build-up yet primarily replays the interpersonal conflicts and emotional ups and downs of every other example of the reality genre.   After all: did we really think CNN, a mainstay of bland social commentary,  would instead engage in incisive social critique?

Yet  the whole experience of watching was nonetheless unsettling. I found the show not only superficial, but creepily irresponsible.  Only one mentor, Lotus founder Mitch Kapor, explicitly critiqued racism.  Two of the experts enlisted to comment on or advise the 8 start-up projects blamed black Americans for their underrepresentation in high-tech industries. Michael Arrington’s confused remarks about the negligible role of race in the “meritocracy” of Silicon Valley and the importance of schooling and family background in explaining why there are “no black entrepreneurs” have gotten a lot of coverage already (see my last post). Another mentor, Vivek Wadwha, a Duke University researcher and tech entrepreneur of South Asian background (who elsewhere has corroborated the discriminatory habits of the field), disturbingly is heard telling the group that blacks in America unfortunately “have a sense of entitlement” because their forbearers “were slaves,” while “his people” have a different approach that has led them to success.

Soledad O’Brien’s script doesn’t stop to comment on that troubling remark.  As a whole, in fact, I’d say that this gloss on race in Silicon Valley imparts no sense that things need to change, but offers only a conversion of real and complex social experience to formulaic prime-time filler.

A Critical Media Moment? CNN on Race

We have to be grateful that CNN is drawing attention to issues of race in Silicon Valley. Or do we? The cable network’s documentary “The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley” airs tomorrow, and if it hones in on structural and institutional racism in American computing and electronics industries, great.  The world of high tech R&D is too easily cast as above or outside of social factors; I spend my days teaching engineering undergrads how to question that presumption.  Specifically, with some powerful reporting by CNN we may see how familiar meritocratic claims about “genius” as the source of American high-tech innovation  (lately fueled by retrospectives of Steve Jobs’ career) have long helped support race-based exclusion in U.S. technology spheres.  I blogged about this the other week.

But I’m a little worried. Advance screenings and media commentary on the film have generated a great deal of conversation, among bloggers and mainstream media alike.  Yesterday the New York Times reflected on the buzz itself, in “CNN Documentary Sets Off Debate on Race and Technology” by Brian Stelter and Jenna Wortham.  And much of that buzz has been about the ways in which individuals depicted in the film, such as Michael Arrington, do or don’t recognize structural inequities; that is, about the talking heads themselves. Their views provide interesting evidence but we need to go from thinking about those individuals  to a broader view.  Hank Williams lays out some of these larger issues for CNN as the network builds hype for the documentary; for example, pervasive economic impediments to the scale-up of minority-led projects. If CNN proves willing to keep that conversation going, bucking a mainstream media tradition of downplaying the race, class and gender inequities still going strong in 21st Century America, then we may have something to thank them for.

The Good-News Game

Is it safe to assume that when CNN reports on a  presidential economic or educational initiative that’s been around for awhile, there’s some serious White House PR effort under way?   A “CNNMoney” column today titled “Recovery at Risk: Community Colleges Step in to Fill ‘Skills Gap'” by Tami Luhby lays out the basics of an Obama-led effort we’ve seen percolating since at least last fall:  American manufacturers actively shaping, and at times supporting  financially, community college programs intended to prepare workers for immediate employment. The President committed millions to the whole Skills for America’s Future initiative some time ago; we saw plenty of news coverage on this last year (as when Bill Gates pumped $35 million into the effort).  I have to wonder how this activity came to seem worthy of  media  coverage again this week; the uncritical tone of the CNN piece gives us a clue.

Since I’ve fretted before about the mismatch between technical curricula and manufacturing jobs, the sometimes misleading economic prospects offered to community college enrollees, it seems like I should give a thumbs up to the trend documented here.  Closer ties between employers and nearby schools  that offer certificates or degrees in technical subjects surely will help correct that mismatch, giving the communities involved a much better shot at raising employment figures.

But while there are exciting success stories for individual enrollees in such programs; a great many dynamic community college faculty and staff including those mentioned by Luhby; and plenty of business owners eager to be involved,  CNN’s coverage ignores systemic obstacles to creating a sizeable pipeline from school to work.  I know from research I’ve done with sociologist Mary Ebeling that the joint efforts of community colleges and their industrial advisory boards are fraught with challenges (think only of the pressures on the colleges to avoid costly, specialized instruction and on the manufacturers to automate and downsize).

The generality and simplicity of the piece is also bewildering.  The column opens with the line, “Contrary to popular belief, there are plenty of job openings out there.”  Can this possibly ring true to anybody, this week of all weeks, left, right or center?

In Luhby’s column, Jeffrey Immelt, Chairman and CEO of General Electric, talks in a video excerpt about his leadership of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. His words confirm my suspicion that this piece arises from some White House damage-control impulse.

Click for Immelt interview

Excerpt from CNN interview with Jeff Immelt, Aug. 1, 2011

Asked by interviewer Poppy Harlow to name the Council’s recommendation that he sees as most important in creating jobs, Immelt  offers what he says is “the easiest, no-brainer” step: Speeding up the country’s visitor visa system, thereby upping the nation’s “market share” of tourism,  and thus putting more Americans to work in “the travel and leisure industry.”

Have to say…these are not the first jobs that come to mind when I think “new skills” or high-tech manufacturing.  And sure enough, Immelt himself immediately adds, “You can argue that maybe that’s not as sexy as one of those factory jobs or engineering jobs, but look, that’s a job, and it puts people back to work.”

I’m sure this kind of peptalk is a tiny part of Immelt’s and the Council’s work, but come on:  tourism is a top job-creation priority? Really?  I’m afraid it just doesn’t sound like Immelt’s imagination defaults to picturing unemployed Americans working in the technology sectors. Writing at the time of Immelt’s appointment earlier this year,  journalist Jim Kuhnhenn reminded readers that the GE executive’s appointment, “adds another corporate insider to the White House orbit,” a move that was promising to the Chamber of Commerce but dismaying to union leadership.  Tom Buffenbarger, the president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, writes Kuhnhenn, “blamed Immelt for GE’s decision to close plants in Virginia, Massachusetts and Ohio.”  He quotes Buffenbarger on the appointment: “‘We are rewarding the guy who is turning off America’s lights, literally.'”  No wonder Immelt highlights a need for more economic confidence and less red tape if we are to create jobs.  Trust business, don’t regulate it, seems to be the message.

“If we can’t do the easy things, we can’t do the hard things,” Immelt adds in the interview, pointing to the speed with which a visa reforms will lead to those travel-and-leisure sector  jobs.  But when exactly are we going to get to the hard stuff?  Who is going to ask the hard questions about how American manufacturers, whether small local firms or massive multinationals like his own employer,  can see their way to creating secure, well paid jobs, and about which federal policies will support that domestic commitment?   This week’s awful White House concessions to Republican big-business/small-government ideology paint a gloomier-than-ever picture for out-of-work Americans. As a Guardian editorial on Obama’s “sharp right turn” put it yesterday, “Austerity is not the road to recovery.”

Blaming the current economic malaise on a “skills gap” implies that the only thing missing is knowledge, that the only folks who need to step up to fix the economy are the country’s skills-deficient workers and its community college instructors.  Not so, and a good, honest move would be for everyone to lay the blame more precisely: on a jobs gap.