Why Is Obama Our First Black President?

Kids’ questions about his victory, and their parents’ attempts to answer.

Barack Obama

Garth and Christy Ross supported Barack Obama from the start. They raised money for him and knocked on doors to rally voters in Northwest Virginia. They involved their 7-year-old son and 5-year old daughter as much as possible, so when Obama won, it was a family celebration. And then, after the election, their son asked during dinner, “Why was he our first president with brown skin?” For the next 45 minutes, the couple, who are white, carefully described America’s racial history, trying to add to what they’d already taught them without giving their children more of that history than they could handle. “We didn’t want to give them an explanation that was laden with all of our baggage,” says Garth.

For the Rosses, us, and we’re sure other parents of young children, the tension in describing Barack Obama’s victory is not whether to explain the racial context. If kids ask why Obama looks different from the parade of presidents before him, there’s no sense pretending he doesn’t. The challenge is just what to talk about—how intensely to focus kids on the historic nature of this moment and how deeply to delve into the legacy of racism that preceded it.

The Obama victory is a teachable moment (to use a piece of jargon we think Obama should outlaw if he’s any kind of president at all). It gives parents a chance to talk to their children about judging people by the content of their character.

For older kids, there have been reports like this one that suggest the election helped black and white eighth graders bridge the racial barriers in a way countless talks on diversity never could. For younger kids, though, or those who live largely segregated lives, to make the lesson stick, parents might have to introduce ideas about division and hatred that young kids so far haven’t confronted.

A lot of white parents aren’t hugely comfortable in this terrain: It’s ugly, and sometimes we’re not really sure of our own relationship to this past. And even if the parents are more sure of themselves, answering certain questions gets complicated quickly. Obsessed with logistics, young kids may want to know exactly how slaves were restrained and kept from escaping. Or how long a sit-in actually lasted, or where black marchers slept if they weren’t allowed into white-owned hotels. And then there’s the larger question, especially for white families: When framing the issue, do parents teach it as a triumph for African-Americans or as a story about the capacity of evil in whites?

The Ross kids go to class with kids of all different ethnic and racial backgrounds and so far haven’t much experienced racial tension. Which is why their parents stepped lightly. Other parents, nonblack and black, see no reason to talk about what’s been overcome, because their kids didn’t frame Obama’s victory that way. “I’m pleased to see that they find the election of a black president to be something that’s not especially remarkable,” says D.J. Hoek, the white father of 5- and 7-year-old girls. “As my daughters grow up and learn more, they surely will come to a fuller understanding of what Obama’s election represents. But now, in their eyes, it’s completely reasonable that an African-American, or a woman, or anyone could become president, and I can think of no better indicator of just how far our country has come.”

When we asked black colleagues and friends how they were handling this with their kids, we got a similar response. And also a desire to spare kids the anger and mistrust they grew up with. “You don’t have to have this conversation,” said our colleague Lynette Clemetson, whose older daughter is 4. “I don’t think black families are sitting around talking about how this is so historic to their young kids. Part of what’s amazing is that to these kids, there’s nothing odd about the picture of having kids in the White House who look just like them.” In the final days of the campaign, Sen. Obama used this same image of his black children playing at the White House to spur African-American leaders to turn out the vote.

At the same time, when we talked about this issue on the Slate “Political Gabfest,” we heard from black listeners who said our purported dilemma existed only for white parents because black kids can’t avoid learning about racism and their parents don’t try to shield them. “There was no reason to hide what happened because our people were the victims,” Aisha Taylor wrote to us. To us, as white parents, it’s reassuring to know that black parents differ from one another on these questions—a reminder that race doesn’t dictate outlook. Surely some of the distinctions drawn depend on the ages of the kids involved. But there is also evidence that white and black kids tend to diverge in how they develop consciousness about race. From 3 to 5, research shows, kids start to notice race (or really skin tone) as a difference among groups. At 5 and 6, they tend to start endorsing racial stereotypes. If you ask them who is more likely to be the boss, both black and white kids will choose the white person. At 7 or 8, kids start to understand that their own race will not change. Some African-American kids start rejecting stereotypes and express group pride.

“What’s interesting is that this doesn’t seem to be related to parents’ attitudes, as most people think it is,” says Christia Spears Brown, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky whom we called for guidance. Instead, kids pick up on cues from the segregation in their own lives, or stray comments, or the ever-guilty media.

Just a couple of years ago, in 2006, there was also the disturbing result of a study by psychologist Rebecca Bigler, in which 205 children ages 5 to 10 were shown a poster of all presidents and asked why there were no African-American presidents. A quarter said the reason was that it was against the law. One in three children attributed the lack of female, African-American, and Latino presidents to racial and gender bias on the part of voters. Another third of the kids said people in the excluded groups lacked the skills to hold the position.

The conclusion Brown draws from this is that “kids notice really early, and the problem is that adults don’t talk about what racial differences mean, so kids draw their own conclusions, and their explanations are often very flawed.” Brown, who is white, gave her almost-5-year-old daughter a simplified explanation about why Obama is our first black president. African-Americans didn’t have as much money to run for president, Brown told her. Also, before, some people thought that someone with darker skin wouldn’t be a good president. Now we know that’s not true.

Maybe one of the most profound aspects of Obama’s victory is that in a year or two—or maybe even right this minute—kids won’t have to come up with a cockamamie reason to explain to themselves why there have been no black presidents. They’ll have different facts from which to draw conclusions about the meaning of race. And then they can teach their parents what they know and see.