Who gets to speak truth when it pertains to African-Americans?
The question pops up again with the manufactured outrage over Jack Davis' comments about busing jobless young blacks to farms so they can learn work skills while earning an honest dollar.
The brouhaha stems from comments Davis made last month in a Republican Party endorsement meeting as he seeks the 26th District congressional seat vacated by Chris Lee.
GOP leaders professed to be shocked -- as if they were auditioning for the part in "Casablanca" where the police chief discovers gambling. One was even "thunderstruck."
Never mind that Davis didn't say anything nearly as offensive -- or inaccurate -- as Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour or other GOP presidential aspirants have recently.
A white man saying what's good for blacks is always grist for those looking for advantage in aggrievement. It's part of the unwritten rules on race in a nation still struggling with the issue that only blacks can say such things about blacks, just as only whites can make "redneck" jokes.
But what about truth? How long can we afford to demand that it be color-coded so that only certain people are allowed to speak it?
While the GOP made political hay of the comments to keep from nominating the eccentric millionaire critics dub "Crazy Jack," if the handful of callers to a black radio show were any indication, many African-Americans are much more discerning.
"I've advocated that on my show," said Ted Kirkland, host of "Kirkland's Korner" on WUFO 1080-AM, referring to the idea of sending some young blacks to area farms to earn a dollar and learn a work ethic.
"There's nothing wrong with hard work and getting your hands dirty," Kirkland said.
Callers on Tuesday's show agreed, pointing out that Davis advocated a "decent wage," not exploiting black labor. Most, like Kirkland, recalled working on farms. And while no one claims that manual labor should be the only long-term option in a computer age, they called it a learning experience as well as an alternative to the streets for young blacks who can't find other work.
"Republicans won't hire black youths for any kind of jobs," said Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, a Democrat, who grew up on a farm and "saw nothing racist" in the comments from Davis, who's now seeking other ballot lines for the May 24 election.
Kirkland noted the cachet of "urban farming" and said crops harvested and brought back to the city to sell could be an economic tool because young people need something to do, "and the black community is not providing it." He plans to invite Davis on his show.
Admittedly, "busing" and "picking crops" can be loaded terms, given this nation's history. There's also something unsettling about a white millionaire prescribing to poor blacks, as when gubernatorial flameout Carl Paladino proposed boarding schools. That's a potentially good idea that must be separated from its source, who -- unlike Davis -- was caught exchanging racist e-mails that call his motives into question.
It's also fair to ask how many blacks Davis has hired, or how many jobs he has funded in light of his expressed interest in unemployed African-Americans.
But at some point -- given the plight of young blacks -- we have to be able to stand back and examine an idea on its own merits. The seriousness of the problem demands it.
And we have to be able to do that even when the idea comes from a rich white guy.