Children of the future age

One thing that’s really hit home reading the web today has been how many people – even people who voted for McCain – are commenting on the fact that the first president their children will remember seeing will be a black man.

That is certainly true of our eldest son, T, aged 7. He began to take an interest in the race last week – I know, I know, lucky beggar missing it all until then 😉 – when the BBC’s children’s news programme, Newsround, had an item about the forthcoming elections.

It clearly captured his imagination, because he spent the last week looking forward to watching Newsround today, “so we can find out what happened!”. As it happens, I couldn’t resist turning the news on for him and his brothers at 7 am this morning, so I’d slightly given the game away for him. But hey, someone would have mentioned it at school anyway.

I asked him this evening whether he’d watched today’s Newsround report, and he confirmed he had. On closer questioning, two things in particular had struck him.

First, he expressed surprise – indeed, outrage – at the way in which “when McCain was congratulating Barack Obama, people were booing“. We agreed that those people had been behaving very badly, and John McCain was a very good man for congratulating Obama so nicely and trying to make them stop.

Second, I asked him if he knew why it was so special for a black man to be elected president. He grunted slightly, and I began to talk about how, not all that long ago, black people in some parts of America had to go to different schools, to travel on different parts of the bus, and so on. At this his eyes lit up, because he realised he had seen about this on Newsround – the programme included a segment on why Obama’s election was so significant, with a brief potted history of segregation and the civil rights movement. (Newsround’s website expands on this here.)

What I found moving is how incomprehensible that former state of affairs is to T. His best friends at school are variously Afro-Caribbean, Chinese and Syrian, and T understood full well that, under segregation, they would have had to go to different schools, use separate entrances for cafes, and so on.

But then he said, with astonishment in his voice: “But what if you were friends with someone who was black? Then you’d have to be separated from them for the whole school day.” I had to explain to him that they quite probably wouldn’t have been friends in the first place, because they would have been living separate lives. We agreed that that was a very silly state of affairs.

What a privilege our children have to grow up finding racism not only wrong, but alien; and to grow up with it never even having to occur to them that a black person couldn’t be president of the United States of America.

(Oh, and anyone in Britain inclined to do down the BBC and toy with the idea of privatising it: watch that episode of Newsround, and ask yourself if any other TV station could do anything like it. They even sent a dedicated reporter over to the States: for a children’s programme! What this communicates to children is: they matter, and it matters that they know about the world. Priceless.)

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2 Responses to Children of the future age

  1. Tom R says:

    Good observation. It’s analogous to the way that I – starting to follow politics in the late 1970s and early 1980s – didn’t at first grasp the huge significance (in 1960) of Kennedy being the USA’s first Catholic president. Twenty years later, it seemed quite ho-hum. (Having said that, he is also still the USA’s only RC President, 48 years later).

    (In the 1930s, the then Australian Prime Minister, Joe Lyons, was in London dining with the King. “You have many Catholics there in Australia, Mr Lyons?” HM asked over cigars. “Yes, about 25%”, Lyons replied. “You want to watch them; they breed like rabbits!” the King told Lyons – unaware that the PM was (a) a devout Catholic and (b) father of 12 children.)

  2. Tom R says:

    … Meditating (NPI) on the Kennedy parallel, I have been having the sobering thought that quite possibly, in another 40 years (hopefully not another 80 or 120 years), Obama may turn out to be not just the first Black US President, but the only one.

    Compare the UK, where it is now 29 years since Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first female Prime Minister. In the 18 years since she was removed from office (ie, long enough for a baby to grow to adulthood), not only has no other woman become a UK Prime Minister, or even a major UK party leader, but there is no other female contender on the horizon who looks like coming close.

    (Another Margaret – Beckett – did hold the Labour Labour Deputy Leadership, briefly, and even served as Acting Opposition Leader in the interlude between John Smith’s death and the election of Tony Blair, in 1994.)

    Obama, like Thatcher, is a uniquely talented political operator. Both are able to force open a door, but it may well slam shut against others of their gender or race who come after them.

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