I grew up just north of Chicago in Evanston hearing about Dr. King --- my elementary school was named for him, the principal and some of the older teachers had marched in the civil rights demonstrations, and everything was 50-50 white-black. We listened to his speeches for a few days every January, sung the civil rights songs, and learned about Africa. At the same time, it was so clear that the inequalities he spoke about persisted: only a few white students came from families with single moms, while almost all the black students did; some were raised by their grandmothers, in retrospect because some of their moms were really young; the black students came from one set of neighborhoods and the white students from others; I remember in 6th through 8th grade one of the 35 girls in the 8th grade was pregnant by middle school graduation, which in retrospect is even more shocking than I thought it was at the time; I also remember an African-American friend in 8th grade talking about her older boyfriend who could drive --- at the time, I was impressed, but now I realize how creepy that was. My best friend in middle school was black and was constantly called an Oreo: she lived in the same neighborhoods as the other African-Americans and went every Saturday to get her hair straightened and every Sunday to church on the south side, but she had gone to private school K-5 and spoke more like her white classmates than the blacks from her neighborhood.
We were all told that we could all be president if we wanted to --- black or white, male or female --- but it was clear that some had a heavy disadvantage and fewer role models. We learned about the same figures every black history month: George Washington Carver and all the uses of peanuts, Frederick Douglas --- and while these were impressive men that anyone could look up to, I think it felt a little stale to list a small number of black male role models, some from the 19th century, when over 10% of young black men were in prison at any given time and a black male had more than a 20% chance of ever being incarcerated. So it was a huge deal when Harold Washington was elected as the first black mayor of Chicago. And, a decade later, Carol Mosley Braun as senator.
Living around college-educated upper-middle-class people, it's easy to forget how viscerally important the election of an African-American as president is for young people. Yes, it's a first in the sense that we can mark it off in the history books as done in the same way that it would have been if a woman were elected. But it is much more than that, and we will only begin to understand it during President Obama's term. For one thing, every child called an Oreo has the best response ever. "Is the president an oreo?"