South Africa is spiraling. Has Winfrey become a target for verbal abuse because she's a rich black woman who chose to spend her millions on needy black children overseas? Would a white, male millionaire get so much criticism for a philanthropic gesture of this magnitude? Is less expected of Winfrey simply because she's black?
Newsweek's blog is buzzing:
"Shame on you Oprah. $40 million dollars for a school in South Africa for 152 children when the rest of the poor black children in that country have a substandard education if any. And on top of that teaching them they need oversize closets and plush rooms you are just turning them into perfect little consumers," writes one blogger.
Another Newsweek blogger chimes in, "What Oprah will be creating will be young girls with visions of materialism, not leaders. Leadership rises from strength of character and that does NOT come from such ludicrous opulence and certainly not from a couple years spent there."
Comments such as these choose to ignore the educational foundation Winfrey is laying out to a group of needy black students. People say, "How can I get diversity without lowering my quality?" The answer is that you can't have quality without diversity—and that's what Oprah is trying to do.
In Winfrey's defense, another blogger chimes in, "Amazing. Racism is alive and well both in America and in Africa. Does anyone question the "extravagance" of, say, George Bush's education? You can bet that his schools had china, fireplaces, and large closets. Bless you, Oprah, for remembering where you came from, and for having the guts to say that poor black girls are just as valuable as anyone else!"
Winfrey herself speculated she would be the subject of criticism shortly before the school opened. In an interview with USA Today Weekend, Winfrey said, "I perhaps will get criticism about, 'Why didn't you do this for children in America?'"
Her reply: "Because we have a school system in America ... There's no 12-year-old girl in America that you're going to find crying because this is the last year for her education because nobody can afford to send her to school. You want to give the gift to the person who's going to love it the most."
After reading yesterday's story on DiversityInc.com, Raymond A. Winbush wrote back to DiversityInc.com, saying, "As an African American, I believe the reason why Oprah's school in S. Africa is under so much fire is because there is an unconscious racism on the part of whites that black people in general, and black girls in particular, don't "deserve luxury." It is also for black African girls, and that, too, sticks in the throat of those who see them as "less than."
Let's build a $20-billion dollar school in the U.S. primarily for the blue bloods of America's elite and limit its enrollment to about 9,500 students. Oops! I forgot, we already did: it's called HarvardUniversity ..."
In his Ask The White Guy column, Luke Visconti, partner and cofounder of DiversityInc, responds:
Thank you for a great observation, Dr. Winbush.
Our country's leaders tend to come from places like Harvard and Yale. There is an increased expectation from family names like Prescott, Bush and Kennedy. It is human nature to elevate certain people to a status above others, and people from those families have access to these schools regardless of their personal or academic capabilities. But how would you build equitable distribution in that group in order to increase the quality of the people promoted as our "leadership"?
If Jack Welch built a school for future leaders in South Africa, there would be a business-school study on his rationale and what it means for his intended lesson that the students and community would receive. The criticism of Oprah focuses on opulence—fireplaces and closets—the number of students for the money spent. People who earn less money in a year than Oprah pays in taxes in a week feel free to provide advice from the sidelines on how she could better spend her money.
One difference between Jack Welch and Oprah is that Jack Welch's business success was from within a very successful huge corporation. Oprah built her business from scratch. Who's the better businessperson?
Oprah understands what motivates people far better than most. In contrast to many other successful businesspeople, she's used her knowledge, time and money to benefit our society in many ways. She's profoundly more successful in this regard than just about any other businessperson in our era (Bill Gates, our December cover subject, is another businessperson of profound positive societal impact).
Another difference between Jack Welch and Oprah is that Oprah is a black woman. In my opinion, the criticism of Oprah and her school demonstrates the most insidious and damaging aspect of racism: diminished expectations. You can read a very eloquent pseudo-scientific defense of diminished expectations from a bigoted professor of biology. I don't think his views are at all isolated—and not just among white people. The dividend of racism is not only diminished expectations but damaged self-esteem and self-image. Benjamin Franklin wrote about this in 1781 as the president of the Abolition Society. He not only laid out the very foundation of affirmative action but recommended that it become a branch of the federal government.
We have yet to follow his sage advice.
Oprah, on the other hand, is providing the foundation for the majority in South Africa to earn the educational accomplishments and self-respect worthy of an extremely wealthy country like South Africa (extreme wealth does not mean distributed wealth or opportunity). She is building a leadership class, with the accoutrements normally found in the schools of a leadership class ... just the environment to restore the spirit of a people who were profoundly oppressed.