It's a tale that we've all heard before — a smart black student from a modest background gets a scholarship to a private high school where his skin color immediately brands him an outsider. However, his skills on the basketball court help win over his classmates, and by the end everyone learns a valuable lesson. Will Smith scores the winning basket at the state championship and aces the SAT, Julia Stiles is crowned homecoming queen alongside her date, homecoming king Mekhi Phifer, and the racist rich boy, played by Ryan Phillippe, is caught on tape stealing the rival school's mascot and doing a number of unspeakable things to it, like making it watch Love Always, Charleston for hours on end.
There's a new version of this story being spun out in media land, one that concerns presidential candidate Barack Obama and the time that he spent at the Punahou School in Honolulu. According to a recent AP report, Obama attended a school where "most of his classmates lived in 'split-level homes with swimming pools'" while he "lived in an apartment."
For folks living in the Lowcountry, it may not be a sign of privilege to live in a split-level home and have a pool in the backyard. Here it's actually fairly common. But in Hawaii, that's a different story entirely. A one-bedroom condo, no larger than an extended-stay hotel room, might house a family of four or more and cost somewhere in the $200,000 to $250,000 range. And chances are, it would be a good mile or so from the beach and offer a stunning view of a neighboring high-rise. The typical home in a prefab Summerville subdivision would be the sort of pad that only Hawaii's wealthy could afford. These are the kind of houses that many Punahou students call home.
Of course, money wasn't the only thing that separated Obama from his classmates. According to the AP, "Obama's feelings of not fitting in were heightened by his race. As one of the few black students at Punahou, he remembered in his memoir someone wanting to touch his hair and being asked whether his father ate people on his first day of school. He wrote about struggling with his racial identity and turning to marijuana to block out the questions."
Finally, the issue of race rears its head. We knew it was coming. It's a necessary component to stories like these. But here's the thing: This tale is different than the others you've heard, and it's this difference that the article ignores. See, Barack Obama was a minority student at a school where the overwhelming majority of the population is now of Asian or Pacific Island descent. Maybe Punahou was different when Obama attended. If so, I doubt it was by much.
The AP article also doesn't bother discussing Hawaii's unique status as the only state where Asians are the majority population and one of three where whites are a minority. Instead, it sticks to the formula, mentioning that Obama went to Punahou around the same time as Steve Case (white boy and future AOL head) and Kelly Preston (white gal and future wife of John Travolta), and quotes former classmates with names like Bart Burford and Tom Boyle.
Now, why does this article fail to point out Punahou's unique demographics? My guess is that it's designed to give readers some insight into how being a black student at what readers assume is an exclusive white school eventually led Obama to associate with his future religious advisor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a preacher with a very strong pro-black stance and, some might say, an anti-white, anti-American point of view. There's a script to adhere to here, and adhere it does, at least partially; the student who wanted to touch Obama's hair and the other who questioned his father's dining habits were reportedly white.
However, when it comes to racial matters at Punahou, things aren't as simple as black and white. They're far more complex than that, much like Obama's relationship with Wright.