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The Truth According to Oprah

By Ruben Navarrette

Oprah rocks. Not only does she give from the heart, she gives as good as she gets. It doesn't matter whether the potshots are coming from the left, right or center, she'll take aim and return fire.

In fact, she draws much of her popularity from her independence. Try as you might, you can't put her in a box.

She sounded like a conservative when she scolded former Labor Secretary Robert Reich for saying that poor people achieve success through luck. Having grown up poor before achieving international fame and amassing a fortune estimated at $1.5 billion, Oprah told Reich she doesn't believe in luck and that success is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

But, after Hurricane Katrina, she sounded like a liberal when she criticized the Bush administration's painfully slow and inadequate response to the disaster and then shelled out $10 million of her own money to private relief efforts while encouraging other celebrities to donate millions more.

And then there's the new girls' school in South Africa, outside Johannesburg. The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls may have cost her $40 million, but the benefactor's series of responses to critics of the project was, well, priceless.

Of course, the fact that there even were critics is mind-boggling. Here you have a bighearted philanthropist who performs this grand gesture, and still some people snipe that it's the wrong gesture done in the wrong way for the wrong people.

When the naysayers suggested that the school was - with its dormitories and media center and gymnasium and tennis courts - too extravagant and too nice for the kids it was meant to educate, Oprah said that, no, as a matter of fact, it was just right.

"People were saying, 'Isn't that too much?' " she told CNN's Anderson Cooper. "And the criticism was 'too much' for African girls. . . . I was told, 'They are coming from huts. . . .' And my point was, it doesn't matter where you come from. What matters is what can be done with your life. And so I wanted to create an environment, the most beautiful environment, that would inspire them."

When reporters in South Africa asked her why most of the 152 students selected were black, Oprah insisted that the school was "open to everyone," and "to all girls who are disadvantaged."

In order to qualify for admission, applicants have to come from poor families that make less than $800 per month.

The reporters persisted and asked if there was an attempt to keep out white students. Oprah snapped back, saying, "I don't think I have to appease the white people of this country."

You go, girl! I must have missed the part where South Africans - with their history - earned the right to lecture the world on racial fairness and equal opportunity.

Not that she went any easier on her countrymen in the United States. When some Americans complained that Oprah should have built her school back home, she minced no words in explaining why she chose to invest in South Africa. It was the difference in the children and their priorities, she said.

"I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools (in the United States) that I just stopped going," she told Newsweek. "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. In South Africa, they don't ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school."

She caught some flak for those remarks from African-Americans who automatically went on the defensive, but that didn't mean she was wrong. In fact, it could be that it's the truth in her words that causes them to sting.

Take it from someone who used to teach in public schools and still visits classrooms from time to time. For many pampered kids in the United States - of all colors and backgrounds - the process of learning has lost its allure. They know they want to be rich and famous like, well, Oprah. But they don't always connect the dots and ask what sort of hard work and sacrifice it will take to get there from where they are now. Their needs and wants are immediate and so is the only kind of gratification they believe in.

Whatever the country, people don't like to hear these things. But somebody needs to say them out loud. And luckily, in this case, somebody did.

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 Ruben Navarrette
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