LAWRENCE — The significance of Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election as the first African-American president was widely analyzed, discussed and documented by pundits and everyday citizens alike. A University of Kansas researcher has authored an article documenting what Obama’s 2008 victory meant for the country’s youngest citizens, how aware they were of politics and their opinions on the significance of race.
Meagan Patterson, assistant professor of psychology and research in education, was lead author on a project that interviewed 130 children ages 6 to 11 within three weeks prior to and following Obama’s election. The study, published in the journal Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, found the children were highly aware of the campaign and that Obama would be the first African-American president, but had varying views on the significance of his race, whether it would affect his chances at election and their own aspirations to be president some day.
“We wanted to know about kids’ understanding of elections in general and their thoughts on race,” Patterson said. “We recruited the sample to be racially diverse because we wanted to look at the attitudes of kids from a wide range of racial groups.”
The children were asked basic questions such as if they knew who Barack Obama and John McCain, the two leading candidates in the race, were and more in-depth questions about their awareness of race, bias, discrimination and whether they desired to become, or thought they could realistically be, president some day. The sample was made up of 70 boys and 60 girls, of whom 29 were African-American, 58 European-American and 43 Latino. All were students at public schools in the Midwest and Southwest.
The researchers expected to find that African-American and Latino children felt Obama’s race would hurt his chances to become president. That was not the case, as the kids indicated they were certainly aware of bias and discrimination, but largely did not state they thought it would affect his chances. In fact, a small majority said they thought his race would actually help his chances at election.
“In general, kids didn’t seem to think there was a strong negative aspect to his race,” Patterson said of Obama. “I think a lot of times we assume children don’t pay attention to politics or race. This research suggests that’s not the case and that it’s important for parents and teachers to address topics of race.”
When children were asked whether they would like to be president someday, half said yes, but a higher percentage of African-American — 57 percent — and Latino children —68 percent — said yes than their white peers —34 percent. However, when they were interviewed after Obama was elected, the percentage saying yes did not increase. A larger percentage of African-American kids — 82 percent — thought they actually could be president some day than white youths — 59 percent — and Latino children — 58 percent. The children were also asked if they thought the election of the first African-American president would have an effect on bias and discrimination in society.
“It may have to do with African-American and Latino kids’ desire to change the system,” Patterson said of kids’ ambition to be president. “Latino kids largely said they still thought bias would continue. They’re still not seeing a president like them.”
The youth were keenly aware that Obama would be the first African-American president, and despite some reported perceptions of continued bias, were largely optimistic that his election would help foster positive changes in the role of race in society.
Researchers have long studied the political attitudes of young voters and those about to reach voting age, such as high school students. Patterson and her colleagues’ study is among the first to gauge the knowledge and interest of grade school children, however, especially examining issues of race in politics. The results show they do in fact pay attention and listen to messages about presidential politics and race from adults, teachers, parents, media and other sources. That could show potential for increasing political engagement among young people and minorities, who historically have not been as largely involved in politics as older and non-minority citizens.
“We’re telling kids that the whole point of an election is to listen to the voice of everyone,” Patterson said. “They’ve shown that when we say ‘we want a black man to be president,’ they notice that and are thinking about what it means for themselves and their country.”
See a profile on Patterson here.