Oprah Winfrey’s poke at the short-sighted materialism of some low-income students has delighted conservative commentators, but that doesn’t mean she’s wrong.
Liberals love to “speak truth to power,” but the powerless need to hear the truth, too. Knowledge, after all, is power. Don’t keep it to yourself, I say. Spread it around.
That’s why the Queen of Daytime Talk did poor folks a favor when she candidly explained in a Newsweek interview why she decided to build her lavish new school for impoverished teenagers, the $40 million Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, in South Africa instead of the United States. South Africa’s students, she said, show a greater need and appreciation for education, even though American schools are free.
“I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools (in America) that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn’t there,” she said. “If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don’t ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school.”
Having reported from South Africa at various times since the 1970s and as the parent of a black American teenager, I agree with Winfrey. She’s not blaming the victims. Our kids don’t know anything except that which they are taught by parents, peers, teachers and other role models. My folks didn’t need college degrees to know that—as they let me know on a daily basis.
Yet, those sentiments sound so politically incorrect these days that it’s easy to understand why Fox News Channel’s John Gibson sounded shocked—Shocked! -at Winfrey’s quote. “Uhh, just asking, but can anybody else in America say that and get away with it?,” he opined.
A similar “Cosby-esque” frenzy has swirled up in recent days around Herman Badillo, the first native-born Puerto Rican elected to Congress, for writing in his new book, “One Nation, One Standard,” that too many of his fellow Hispanic-Americans are stuck in poverty because they don’t value education enough.
“Education is not a high priority in the Hispanic community,” wrote Badillo, 77, a Democrat-turned-Republican and former mayoral candidate. “Hispanic parents rarely get involved with their children’s schools. They seldom attend parent-teacher conferences, ensure that children do their homework, or inspire their children to dream of attending college.”
Yet, instead of discussing the worthy points Badillo raises, many will try to shout him down. Bronx Democratic leader José Rivera already has blasted Badillo in a New York Post interview as a “total insult” to Latino parent-advocates. That’s OK, Badillo says. He wanted to stir up a dialogue. The controversy will help him sell a few more books, too. Puerto Ricans certainly are not the only Americans who need to read it.