2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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Michelle Obama thesis was on racial divide

 

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Jeffrey Ressner
Politico.com
Feb 22, 2008

Michelle Obama
 
Michelle Obama's senior thesis at Princeton University shows a young woman grappling with race and society.
Photo: AP

Michelle Obama's senior year thesis at Princeton University, obtained from the campaign by Politico, shows a document written by a young woman grappling with a society in which a black Princeton alumnus might only be allowed to remain "on the periphery." Read the full thesis here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

"My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my 'blackness' than ever before," the future Mrs. Obama wrote in her thesis introduction. "I have found that at Princeton, no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my white professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don't belong. Regardless of the circumstances underwhich I interact with whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and a student second."

The thesis, titled "Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community" and written under her maiden name, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, in 1985, has been the subject of much conjecture on the blogosphere and elsewhere in recent weeks, as it has been "temporarily withdrawn" from Princeton's library until after this year's presidential election in November. Some of the material has been written about previously, however, including a story last year in the Newark Star Ledger.

Obama writes that the path she chose by attending Princeton would likely lead to her "further integration and/or assimilation into a white cultural and social structure that will only allow me to remain on the periphery of society; never becoming a full participant."

During a presidential contest in which the term "transparency" has been frequently bandied about, candidates have buried a number of potentially revealing documents and papers. In Hillary Rodham Clinton's case, there's been a clamoring for tax records, White House memos and other material the candidate's team has chosen to keep from release. The 96-page Princeton thesis, restricted from release by the school's Mudd Library, has also been the subject of recent scrutiny.

Earlier this week, commentator Jonah Goldberg remarked on National Review Online, "A reader in the know informs me that Michelle Obama's thesis ... is unavailable until Nov. 5, 2008, at the Princeton library. I wonder why."

"Why a restricted thesis?" asked blogger-pastor Louis Lapides on his site Thinking Outside the Blog. "Is the concern based on what's in the thesis? Will Michelle Obama appear to be too black for white America or not black enough for black America?"

Attempts to retrieve the document through Princeton proved unsuccessful, with school librarians having been pestered so much for access to the thesis that they have resorted to reading from a script when callers inquire about it. Media officers at the prestigious university were similarly unhelpful, claiming it is "not unusual" for a thesis to be restricted and refusing to discuss "the academic work of alumni."

The Obama campaign, however, quickly responded to a request for the thesis by Politico. The thesis offers several fascinating insights into the mind of Michelle Obama, who has been a passionate advocate of her husband's presidential aspirations and who has made several controvesial statements, including this week's remark, "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country." That comment has fueled debate on countless blogs, radio talk shows and cable news for days on end, causing her to explain the statement in greater detail.

The 1985 thesis provides a trove of Michelle Obama's thoughts as a young woman, with many of the paper's statements describing the student's world as seen through a race-based prism.

"In defining the concept of identification or the ability to identify with the black community," the Princeton student wrote, "I based my definition on the premise that there is a distinctive black culture very different from white culture." Other thesis statements specifically pointed to what was seen by the future Mrs. Obama as racially insensitive practices in a university system populated with mostly Caucasian educators and students: "Predominately white universities like Princeton are socially and academically designed to cater to the needs of the white students comprising the bulk of their enrollments."

To illustrate the latter statement, she pointed out that Princeton (at the time) had only five black tenured professors on its faculty, and its "Afro-American studies" program "is one of the smallest and most understaffed departments in the university." In addition, she said only one major university-recognized group on campus was "designed specifically for the intellectual and social interests of blacks and other third world students." (Her findings also stressed that Princeton was "infamous for being racially the most conservative of the Ivy League universities.")

Perhaps one of the most germane subjects approached in the thesis is a section in which she conveyed views about political relations between black and white communities. She quotes the work of sociologists James Conyers and Walter Wallace, who discussed "integration of black official(s) into various aspects of politics" and notes "problems which face these black officials who must persuade the white community that they are above issues of race and that they are representing all people and not just black people," as opposed to creating "two separate social structures."

To research her thesis, the future Mrs. Obama sent an 18-question survey to a sampling of 400 black Princeton graduates, requesting the respondents define the amount of time and "comfort" level spent interacting with blacks and whites before they attended the school, as well as during and after their University years. Other questions dealt with their individual religious beliefs, living arrangements, careers, role models, economic status, and thoughts about lower class blacks. In addition, those surveyed were asked to choose whether they were more in line with a "separationist and/or pluralist" viewpoint or an "integrationist and/or assimilationist" ideology.

Just under 90 alums responded to the questionnaires (for a response rate of approximately 22 percent) and the conclusions were not what she expected. "I hoped that these findings would help me conclude that despite the high degree of identification with whites as a result of the educational and occupational path that black Princeton alumni follow, the alumni would still maintain a certain level of identification with the black community. However, these findings do not support this possibility."

 
 

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