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Perspectives: If Not Oprah, Then Who?

While all the attention swirling around Oprah Winfrey’s new $40 million Leadership Academy in South Africa last week focused on what inner city America might have missed out on, some may have missed out on the bigger picture.

After the media mogul and philanthropist unveiled the school, controversy and questions erupted almost immediately. News pundits, politicians and other critics wanted to know why Winfrey lent such assistance to Africa and not to needy inner city schools here at home. They also chastised Winfrey for spending lavishly on appointing the 22-acre campus with marble flooring, outdoor and indoor theaters, a beauty salon and a yoga studio.

Winfrey fired back that she chose to share this particular gift with African children rather than inner city American children because she believed those in Africa valued education more. She added that she intentionally spared no expense in constructing the 28-building campus so as to bring out the beauty within the girls attending the school.

But what Winfrey’s comments further demonstrate is class warfare taking place within the Black community, says Dr. Shawn Ginwright, an associate professor of Africana studies at San Francisco State University. “It’s a silent war that nobody wants to talk about.”

In making her response, Winfrey echoed complaints Bill Cosby made a little more than two years ago, and which he has been repeating ever since.

Winfrey said she became so frustrated with visiting inner city schools that she just stopped going. “The sense that you need to learn just isn’t there. If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers,” she said in Newsweek. “In South Africa, they don’t ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so that they can go to school.”

Ginwright says Winfrey’s comments represent a trend in thinking that African-American students’ performance in school is solely their responsibility. “Her comments represent a very naïve, limited, static and restrictive understanding of the real circumstances and challenges faced by the Black poor,” he says. “It’s an endorsement of a system that has worked for the Black middle class. But the fact is there are millions of Blacks in chocolate cities that have not made it and the system continues to ban them and keep them from making it.”

To be fair, Winfrey has contributed millions of dollars towards providing a better education for underserved U.S. students. But the bottom line is, it’s her money, she can spend it any way and any where she wants. So the arguments broadcast on talk radio and television shows are moot.

It’s easy to say the Black and poor aren’t interested or engaged in the educational process. And quite frankly, it’s also easier to ask someone to give you what you want than it is to work for it. What’s more difficult, though, is to discuss — not to mention resolve — the tension between Blacks who have climbed the economic ladder, and those who have not.

The battle that Ginwright speaks of, however, is a discussion African-Americans have been avoiding ever since W.E.B. DuBois wrote The Talented Tenth. Published in 1903, The Talented Tenth charged that a small group of college-educated Blacks would bring about social change for the masses.

In selecting only 4 percent — or 152 — of the girls that applied to attend her leadership academy, Winfrey said, “when you educate a girl, you change the face of a nation.” If Winfrey is right, and the girls use their educational gift to alleviate the poverty of their country as opposed to just getting good jobs, raising families and concerning themselves with accumulating individual success, then indeed we can call Winfrey’s school a success.

In the United States, however, DuBois’ philosophy, is often misapplied in that too many successful African-Americans focus on accumulating their own capital and forget about the ones they left behind.

To be sure, Winfrey is not counted among this group.

— Freelance writer Tracie Powell is a frequent contributor to Diverse.

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