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Coup de Gates 

Bill gets it right with $1 billion minority gifts

Gates outdid me. Every month, I write a check to charity, depending on what piddly amount I can afford. This time, the American Indian College Fund was about to be the lucky beneficiary of my $50 check.

Then I clicked on the headlines: The man I love to scorn, Bill Gates, and his wife, Melinda Gates, pledged $1 billion for minority scholarships, the biggest donation ever to higher education. The United Negro College Fund is administering the scholarships; the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and the American Indian College Fund are benefiting.

One billion clams? Just for minority kids? This donation could tip the balance of the economic scales in America. To hell with minority bit parts on network TV; this money could mean that in a few years Hollywood decision-makers may be black or Hispanic or Native American or Asian. Whoa.

I reminded myself not to get all teary-eyed. This is, after all, the man who wants to dominate the world with a crappy, bug-bitten operating system.

So I fished into the Gates Millennium Scholars Web site (www.gmsp.org) to find the catch. I found instead a minority scholarship program that doesn't consider dunking skills a primary qualification. The program will award four-year scholarships to 1,000 low-income minority students a year, and graduate money to students who pursue engineering, math, science, education or library science.

The applicants must have at least a 3.3 GPA, show financial need, volunteer in their communities and must be African American, Native American, Hispanic or Asian.

It's about time a serious premium is placed on giving back to the community. More scholarships should be awarded to kids who mentor younger kids, help their elders, feed the homeless, lead student activities.

But I like the unabashed minority-only part best. This is a coup of sorts in an age when affirmative and action are dirty words, when many whites have unilaterally decided minorities are equal, when conservatives argue that the "have-laters" will get Internet access when the market is good and ready, when giving nearly always has strings, religious or otherwise, attached.

One good, un-paranoid look shows the ethnic playing field is filled with potholes. The handful of overpaid black athletes are an anomaly. The real proof is in boardrooms, especially of high-tech companies. Nearly all white. Or in engineering classes. Or on network television. Or in big-budget films. Or in the Ivy League. White, white, white, mostly white.

Can a halfway intelligent human being really believe this whitewash is because minorities do not want a chunk of the economic pie, or to design, lead, act, learn? The reality is, it takes scratching, clawing, role models, ambition, etiquette lessons, books, tools, resume skills, mentors, good conversation, confidence and teachers who believe in you to escape an uneducated ghetto.

I know, because a four-year scholarship lifted me out of a Mississippi trailer-park slum where the Yellow Pages was the only book you saw in most homes -- and I'm not fool enough to think I was better "qualified" then my prep-school competitors. I know that scholarship committee saw potential, but it was about as raw as it could possibly get in my dollar-store-clad package.

Yes, I'm white. And that means I would not have qualified for the Gates money. But that's OK with me. I remember being surrounded by bright-but-dirt-poor black and Native Choctaw kids who didn't have a pair of tacky polyester pants to wear to a scholarship interview. They needed a shot, too.

My scholarship in 1979 sent me on a long, educational road that this year led to the Ivy League. When I heard I'd been accepted to an institution my illiterate-but-fiercely-intelligent mother probably never heard of, I thought first of the (yes, all-white) men who gave me that scholarship. I hope and pray this $1 billion will allow thousands of poor kids a chance to soar to heights their parents couldn't imagine.

I also hope other businesses and individuals will unabashedly follow Gates' affirmative action. It's right, and it's good business.

As for me, I have a $50 check to write.

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