How does a mother explain discrimination to a child? How does she tell her son that he is different from his classmates who also wave American flags, recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or dribble a ball across a soccer field? How does she explain that the dream Barack Obama grew up with excludes him?
In the moments before history was made in January, students coast to coast put down pencils and books and shuffled into cafeterias and auditoriums to watch the inauguration of our first black president.
Faculty recognized the teachable moment as the new president said, "...a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath." No longer would teachers feel a twinge of discomfort when students pointed out the name-calling in classic books like "Huckleberry Finn." As the clock struck noon in our nation's capital, such pejorative references to race could aptly be explained within the framework of history, not just a history hoped for. For all Americans now share the dream.
But do they?
During the car ride home from school that inauguration day, my first-grader and kindergartener waved handmade American flags with Barack Obama's name etched on the back. Through smiles, they recited the Pledge of Allegiance the way young children do: "I pledge of allegiance to the flag..." and they asked me about what it means to be president. When I explained the president keeps us free and safe, Ben, my youngest son, proclaimed he wanted the job some day.
Many parents would swell with pride hearing such ambition. But pride was far from my mind as I fumbled for a response. The truth was simply too harsh for that cherubic face in the rearview mirror. After all, how does a mother explain discrimination to a child? How does she tell her son that he is different from his classmates who also wave American flags, recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or dribble a ball across a soccer field? How does she explain that the dream Barack Obama grew up with excludes him?
My children are Korean-born, sons through adoption. Only months old, they flew into Logan Airport as immigrants yet emerged as United States citizens the moment their adoptions finalized in the Massachusetts courts.
But the very document that protects them against so many forms of discrimination is the same document that douses Ben's dream. Section 1 of Article II of the United States Constitution states: "No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall be eligible to the office of president." This section, in effect, creates a second class of American citizens.
Many say the chances of being president are so remote the Constitutional limitation is a trifling matter. But that is not the point. The point is that dreams cause us to excel beyond our current circumstances and that the freedom to dream big is what sets the United States apart. Ours is a country where big dreams led to cures for diseases, technology to feed an abundance of mouths, innovations for a cleaner planet, instantaneous connections to friends and family around the world, college education for the children of factory workers and hope through war and recessions. Big dreams led Martin Luther King, Jr. to proclaim, "one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" and led another black man to grasp those words so tightly, his journey 45 years later brought him to the podium on January 20 to take a sacred oath.
Like some of the language in "Huckleberry Finn," that portion of Article II of the Constitution can be explained within an historical context - the genuine fear the British could regain control of the States. But it's time to revisit the notion, at least as it pertains to foreign-born adopted children. While there was some attempt in recent years to amend the document eliminating the exclusion altogether, many felt the proposals were emphasized to pave the way for Austria-born Arnold Schwarzenegger to become president.
Amending the Constitution requires colossal effort, but can be accomplished in two ways. The first is passage of a bill by a two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress, later be approved by a majority vote of three-quarters of state legislatures within a particular timeframe. The second, and not yet accomplished, is through an amendment proposed during a Constitutional Convention called by two-thirds of state legislatures, which must then be approved by at least three-quarters of state legislatures. There have been 27 amendments to the Constitution in the past 220 years since the government began acting under it. The first ten amendments, known together as the Bill of Rights, were passed in a single effort.
The organization, Equality for Adopted Children, has advocated legislation that would avoid rigors of the constitutional amendment process by expanding the term natural born citizen to include foreign-born adoptees. However, if such legislation were to pass, the question would linger as to whether it trumps the intentions of the Constitution's framers.
According to the U.S. State Department's web site, since 1998 alone, there have been over 200,000 adoptions of foreign-born children into the United States, peaking in 2004 with almost 23,000 adoptions, the majority of which came from China, Russia, Guatemala and South Korea. Many of these children were adopted so young that they have no recollection of their birthplace, let alone a loyalty to it greater than to the country where they live, learn, love and play. We, as parents of foreign-born adoptees, rightfully teach our children to honor and respect the Constitution, despite this gaping hole. A hole I never dwelled on until the face in the rearview mirror stymied me that historic inauguration day.
All American children deserve the legal latitude to equally participate in a great dream of youth. We all lose in denying them this freedom. Not only because of our country's pride in its innate gravitation towards basic fairness, but who knows if one of those 200,000 children is the leader that would make all the difference?
Mary Z. Connaughton lives in Framingham, Mass., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.