To the Editor:
The story has a familiar ring: a black father who deserts his wife and young child; a young mother who remarries and is taken thousands of miles from home and family; that same mother returning without her husband, sending her son to live with her parents.
Despite these unfavorable beginnings, that son, Barack Obama, is now running for the nation’s highest office. Surely his story shows that neither race nor a fractured family can keep a talented child from realizing his potential. Isn’t Sen. Obama’s rise proof that we’ve overcome our heritage of racism, that the playing field has finally been leveled?
Not so fast. Though it may be tempting, we have to resist generalizing from Sen. Obama to millions of poor, inner-city or rural black children reared by single mothers or by grandparents. Unlike most inner-city mothers, Sen. Obama’s mother had, thanks to her own college education, the ability to teach him at home. He recounts in his autobiography Dreams From My Father how, when the family lived in Indonesia, his mother woke him at 4 a.m. and gave him three hours of home schooling in English before sending him off to the local school.
Upon returning to Hawaii, 10-year-old Barack was given an educational opportunity open almost exclusively to the wealthy and well connected, admission to Hawaii’s most prestigious prep school, Punahou. How did that come about? Sen. Obama tells us it was due to the intervention of his white grandfather’s boss, an alumnus of the school. In other words, personal connections, connections few black people would have had, made all the difference.
Yes, Sen. Obama’s rise tells us something about the lowering of racial barriers, but let’s keep in mind that he had opportunities most young black men never receive: the opportunity to learn academics from his own mother, to live among and get to know white folks, and to gain entry to a prestigious, virtually all-white private school.
School of Education
University of Wisconsin-Madison
A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2008 edition of Education Week as Does Obama’s Rise Negate Our ‘Heritage of Racism’?