As the first African-American children to take up residence in the White House, Malia and Sasha Obama can look forward to a gilded life of elite schools, the finest healthcare, unbounded career opportunities and – for now at least – perhaps the most exciting prospect of all: the new puppy their father has promised.
When Barack Obama’s captivating children skipped into the limelight alongside him as history was made in Chicago last Tuesday night, Sasha, 7, waved happily at the ecstatic crowd as Malia, 10, strode serenely alongside their mother Michelle.
For a few moments, as this strikingly attractive family group basked together in the roar of election victory, the magnitude of Obama’s achievement was written on the faces of his wife and children: a black family en route to Washington, to the finest address in the land.
“Each of us will always remember this moment,” exulted Henry Louis Gates Jr, one of America’s foremost African-American historians. “My colleagues and I laughed and shouted, whooped and hollered, hugged each other and cried.”Yet as the euphoria inevitably gives way to the harsh realities of recession and war, Obama’s young daughters may come to symbolise more than a great moment of racial progress. Their privileged lives will serve as a constant reminder of the lingering inequalities of American life, and the scale of the challenge that Obama now faces as he attempts to turn election promise into lasting social change.
“In this country – of all countries – no child’s destiny should be determined before he takes his first step,” Obama declared during the campaign.
“No little girl’s future should be confined to the neighbourhood she was born into.”
For the vast majority of African-American schoolgirls, having a father to care for them at all is a rare gift. More than 70% of black babies born in America last year were born to single mothers. A young black woman growing up in America faces a list of disadvantages so daunting that even Obama, in a speech on urban America in Washington last July, asked with a note of disbelief in his voice: “How can a country like this allow it?” A black baby girl is more than twice as likely to die in infancy as a white child. She is more likely to contract childhood diseases such as asthma and diabetes. She will be more prone to obesity and will most probably end up in an underfunded and understaffed state school, where her grades will be significantly lower than for white students.
A black woman faces a life expectancy that is five years shorter than for white women. Throughout her life she will be paid on average less than two-thirds of a white man’s wage for her job; she may have trouble finding a husband who has not been to jail, and more problems finding a house in a neighbourhood free of drug-dealers. She is more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer and will not live as long after diagnosis as white women in a similar condition.These are some of the many inequalities that Obama has pledged to address through his sweeping proposals for universal healthcare, education reform and redistribution of wealth. Yet it was clear last week, as black communities across the country rejoiced at his election, that many African-Americans have hopelessly unrealistic expectations of what their new president might achieve at a time of severe economic retrenchment.
Even before the votes were counted, Peggy Joseph was in little doubt about what an Obama presidency would mean. Gushing with enthusiasm at an Obama rally, she told one television interviewer: “I won’t have to pay for my [petrol] any more. I won’t have to work to pay my mortgage. He’s going to help me.”
In Washington on election night, Isaac Johnson was wandering around the Eastern market in a daze, tears running down his cheeks. “It’s all changed, man,” he kept saying. “We’ll get respect now, we’ll get our dream.”
Spike Lee, the African-American film director, declared the election a “seismic shift”. Oprah Winfrey, the television chat show queen, opened her postelection show on Wednesday by screaming “Whoooooo!” over and over again. Read more.......