Talk­ing truth to in­ner-city poor

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Clarence Page

Oprah Win­frey’s poke at the short­sighted 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 Miss Win­frey. She’s not blam­ing the vic­tims. Our kids don’t know any­thing ex­cept what 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 ev­ery day.

Yet, those sen­ti­ments sound so po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect th­ese days that it’s easy to un­der­stand why Fox News Chan­nel’s John Gib­son sounded shocked — at Miss Win­frey’s quote. “Uhh, just ask­ing, but can any­body else in Amer­ica say that and get away


with it?,” he opined.

And Rush Lim­baugh re­sponded with sim­i­lar as­ton­ish­ment. “This is quite Cosby-es­que of the Oprah,” he said, ap­prov­ingly. That, of course, was a di­rect ref­er­ence to Bill Cosby, who sparked a back­lash from some quar­ters for lash­ing out at par­ents who pro­vide their kids with over­priced gym shoes in­stead of as­sis­tance with their home­work.

In­deed, there were some crit­ics who ac­cused Mr. Cosby (in­cor­rectly, in my view) of blam­ing the vic­tims. But hav­ing paid close at­ten­tion to the re­ac­tions Mr. Cosby has re­ceived since his first bomb­shell in 2004, I have heard more pos­i­tive than neg­a­tive re­sponses from black par­ents and from ed­u­ca­tors of all races. Nev­er­the­less, in our dis­pute-driven news me­dia cul­ture, con­flict sells.

A sim­i­lar “Cosby-es­que” frenzy has swirled re­cently 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,” wroteMr. Badillo, 77, a Demo­crat-turned-Repub­li­can and for­mer may­oral can­di­date. “His­panic par­ents rarely get in­volved with their chil­dren’s schools. They sel­dom at­tend par­en­tteacher con­fer­ences, en­sure that chil­dren do their home­work, or in­spire their chil­dren to dream of at­tend­ing col­lege.”

Un­for­tu­nately, Mr. Badillo is right and not only about His­pan­ics. In­dif­fer­ence to ed­u­ca­tion is un­for­tu­nately epi­demic across racial and eth­nic lines, but it is par­tic­u­larly dam­ag­ing to the poor. For ear­lier waves of im­mi­grants to Amer­ica, un­skilled jobs were much more plen­ti­ful. Up­ward mo­bil­ity for most of to­day’s kids al­ready re­quires at least a cou­ple of years of school­ing be­yond high school.

Yet, in­stead of dis­cussing the wor­thy points Mr. Badillo raises, many will try to shout him down. Bronx Demo­cratic leader Josi Rivera al­ready has blasted Mr. Badillo in a New York Post in­ter­view as a “to­tal in­sult” to Latino par­ent-ad­vo­cates. That’s OK, Mr. 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.

With that in mind, I don’t mind the lav­ish­ness of Oprah’s academy, al­though it has come un­der fire from other crit­ics on the right and the left. Sure, the $40 mil­lion could have ser­viced 10 times more stu­dents in more mod­est sur­round­ings. But, why shouldn’t bright and promis­ing fu­ture African lead­ers have a learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment at least as nice as that en­joyed by the Ivy League elites who pop­u­late Amer­ica’s lead­er­ship class?

Be­sides, if we re­ally want our kids to ap­pre­ci­ate ed­u­ca­tion, we should fol­low Oprah’s ex­am­ple: Fix up the old, crum­bling struc­tures into which we herd too many of our stu­dents here at home. If we want our kids to ap­pre­ci­ate ed­u­ca­tion, we have to show some re­spect for it, too.

Clarence Page is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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