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What Kids Can Learn from the New First Family

by William B. Harvey

William B. Harvey

William B. Harvey is the vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity at the University of Virginia. Read more »

Sorry, William B. Harvey is no longer taking questions.

Most of us have been on road trips with a young child in the back seat asking, "Are we there yet?" As parents who have traveled a few highways and byways, we might explain with graduated measures of patience (or irritability depending on how many times it has been asked) that the trip is not over just yet, but that every mile that we travel gets us closer to being "there."

With the election of Barack Hussein Obama as its 44th president, and with his young family calling The White House home, our nation took a huge, accelerated surge forward. This historic action understandably brings a feeling of pride and accomplishment to most Americans. And, perhaps most importantly, it shows all children that anything is possible.

A two-time graduate of Ivy League universities, best-selling author, extraordinary speaker, member of the United States Senate - often called the nation's most exclusive club - President Obama has repeatedly demonstrated skills and successes that are realized by only a minute fraction of the population. The First Lady, Michelle Obama, is a very talented and accomplished professional in her own right. Together, they are simply known as "mom" and "dad" to two school-aged kids who like pizza and mac and cheese just as many other kids do.

With the elevation of the first family to what some would call "rock star" status, children will continually be exposed to images of them on television, in newspapers, on the internet as well as in other forms of media. So, how do we use this phenomenon as an ongoing learning experience for our children?

First, the new first family provides other families of color with real-life role models as examples for their children, far outside the fields of sports and entertainment which many young people have regarded as the paths to success. The Obamas are the realization of the fictional Cosby family of TV fame, which showed successful African American parents raising energetic, spunky children. Now, millions of boys and girls will recognize that they have the capacity to become politicians, lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers, architects or anything else that they choose. This new sense of optimism will undoubtedly be combined with a healthy dose of self-esteem; a necessary component of living one's dream.

Parents who live in predominantly white neighborhoods, can use the election to open their children's eyes to our richly diverse world. It's a prime opportunity to discuss the many different races, ethnicities, cultures and religions that exist. We may look different. We might not share the same beliefs. But at the end of the day, we are all people. And every one of us, big and small, has a right to achieve our dreams.

We should also acknowledge America's shortcomings as well as its strengths; that barriers and obstacles still exist which prevent some children from realizing their full potential. We must inspire the younger generation to be more vigilant and decisive than their elders have been in making the American dream a reality for all. We all stand to benefit from this endeavor.

The trek that Barack Obama took to his place in history was likely filled with some bumps along the way. The trek that African American pioneers took well before Obama was indeed treacherous and with great sacrifice. Because of them all, in this moment, we are picking up speed on our journey toward a country that offers opportunity for children everywhere. And it feels like we might just get there after all.

Sorry, William B. Harvey is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.


Kevin writes...

Dr. Harvey,

I found your post informative and encouraging as, I believe, most people are hopeful that President Obama's election signals brighter days ahead for all people regardless of race, religious beliefs, cultural differences, etc. Two siginificant challenges I see are (1) how do parents that were raised with, and continue to harbor, racial and religious prejudice accept the dramatic change that has occurred to help diffuse their own prejudice, and (2) how do parents falling in this group educate their children on diversity when they remain closed-minded to accepting that the world at large, and the United States in particular, are melting pots with our differences making us collectively better?

Dr. Harvey? writes...

Your questions overlap to a significant degree, and this may seem like an unusual response, but I really like the public service announcements where media stars, in 15 seconds, explain that no child is born with prejudice and hatred - it has to be taught to them. President Obama's election offers parents an opportunity to ask themselves whether, intentionally or unintentionally, they're teaching their children to be prejudiced and to hate people who are different from them. This is an "aha" moment, and hopefully, for the sake of their children, people will be honest with themselves, admit their shortcomings, and change their behavior. I also like the slogan of the environmental movement -- think globally/act locally. You may not be able to change the world, but you can change yourself, and who knows how much impact that might have on others.

Gabby writes...

Hi Dr. Harvey. Thanks for your article. How do you think elementary and middle schools are doing in encouraging diversity among students?

My almost 5-year-old son will be going to kindergarten in a predominantly white school. (He is mixed-race.) His father and I tell him that he can do or be anything. And certainly, with Barack Obama as our new president, he has a better understanding of what's achievable. But, sometimes I wonder how much those themes will be supported at his new school. Thanks.

Dr. Harvey? writes...

It's an unfortunate reality that residential segregation results in most students attending schools that are largely dominated by white populations in the suburbs and African American and/or Hispanic and Latino students in the cities. So, this situation limits the opportunity for them to interact in a meaningful way with students from racial backgrounds that are different from their own. You may very well need to help the teachers and administrators in your school understand the importance of bringing lessons about diversity into the classroom, and hopefully President Obama's election will make them more sensitive to this situation than they otherwise would have been. My advice to you is to become actively involved in the parent/teacher organizations, become a classroom aide if you have the time and flexibility, and a volunteer or monitor on class trips and other activities. Involved parents can help shape the content and direction of the school experience and when you improve the situation for your son, then you do it for all of his classmates as well.

Jeremy writes...

Arent we already "there"? If a black man can become president, isnt anything possible?
Too many black Americans seem to think that every last black person must be doing great in life, and that no white person must ever offend, before they admit that racism isnt that big a deal anymore, and effects people of all races.
I am beginning to wonder if complaining about racism isnt actually, just another form of racism. A way to get at those "other" people.

Dr. Harvey? writes...

President Obama's election is a source of great pride for African Americans especially, but no, we aren't "there" yet. When African Americans are compared with whites on most indices that measure quality of life, such as annual income, access to quality health care, safe neighborhoods, good schools, and adequate housing, there are wide gaps between the two groups. Though circumstances of prejudice, discrimination, and racism may be invisible to white Americans, they remain very real to large numbers of African Americans. While we don't expect that every one will do great in life, we do hope that everyone will have equal opportunities to realize their potential. That's what the American dream is all about.

Bill Harvey

Felicia writes...

Hi Dr. Harvey,
Thanks so much for your article. I share your optimism about Barack Obama but I want to clarify that I think that before we as a nation can celebrate getting "there," we have to wait to see what sort of political legacy he leaves. He undoubtedly has started out better than most.
Along the lines of what you said about the Cosby show, it also showed viewers of all races that there are values, desires, and characteristics that are shared universally. The example set by the new first family certainly seems to echo that sentiment.
I was wondering if you could elaborate on ways to "inspire the younger generation to be more vigilant and decisive than their elders have been in making the American dream a reality for all." Thanks so much!


Dr. Harvey? writes...

I think that partly because of President Obama's election and his call to service, young people will be more interested in making a contribution to society than has been the case in quite a long time. Young people see the flaws and shortcomings in our society in a clearer light than older people do, and a lot of them want to make things right. What we can do to inspire them is to applaud and congratulate their willingness to give of themselves and to respect others, and then we can pitch in and work beside them to transform ourselves and our neighbors. To paraphrase Gandhi, the best way to see the change is to be the change. Remember that President Obama was a community organizer, so my guess is that in addition to leaving a political legacy, he's just as interested in leaving a humanitarian legacy.

D. K. writes...

I think your putting to much in this. What I have heard so far, since Obama has taken office is how he is going to help his black brothers and sisters with more hand outs and level the playing field. Level the playing field, my daughter had a 3.84 GPA, with Honors and AP classes and couldn't get a helping hand for college, but another student who was black and barely passed had options of 2 full pages for grants, and financial help. Putting this President and 1st lady in such a degree of "holiness" is pushing the limit. I spoke to dozens that voted for him only because of color and his promise to level the financial field. I wish it was all about character. Obam's moral issues that he has backed already tells me I made the correct choice of not voting for him and do not want my children seeing him as a role model when my moral values are being pushed aside to see his. I do not believe in abortion, however he overturned Bush's Mexico
policy and now the US is paying for ore outside of our country. Sorry I can only hope that all racisim is put aside by his election, that would be my main goal, that all people are created equal regardless of color of skin, and that Martin Luther King's hope of character are used.

Dr. Harvey? writes...

D. K.
I'm sure that Dr. King would be pleased to know that you concur with his wish for people to be judged by the content of their character, and though you may disagree with President Obama in regards to philosophical issues, I trust you would agree that he is a man of great character. The democratic system allows us to recognize the differences between our points of view in a respectful manner, and to exercise our votes as we think appropriate. I don't believe the people who are celebrating Obama's election are attributing "holiness" to him and the first lady, but obviously many people are proud that we have transcended some of the prejudice that has been very evident throughout the nation's history.

I congratulate your daughter on her academic success, but having been a university faculty member and administrator for many years, I'm doubtful that a student who barely passed was presented with the kind of aid offers you described just because he is African American.
These are the kinds of stories that become "urban legends" and I'd suggest that you check into it more thoroughly before you present it as fact.

Bill Harvey

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