By JONATHAN TILOVE
February 18, 2007
c. Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) In her 1985 Princeton senior thesis, “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” Michelle LaVaughn Robinson lamented that white professors and classmates always saw her as “Black first and a student second.”
She had surveyed alumni to see whether they sacrificed their commitment to other blacks on the altar of success, and foresaw for herself an uneasy future: “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.”
Today Michelle LaVaughn Robinson is Michelle Obama, wife of Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat who on Feb. 10 announced he was seeking the least peripheral job in America. On Feb. 11, the pair were interviewed side by side on “60 Minutes.” And over their picture on Ebony’s February cover, the headline asks, “America‘s Next First Couple?”
Amid these hopes of history-in-the-making, Michelle Obama’s Princeton thesis offers a revealing glimpse of the angst with which many successful blacks struggle _ Barack Obama among them. Does making it in America mean “selling out”? Even more poignantly, can African-Americans ever truly enter the American elite?
Surveys find this gloom about the promise of the American dream is shared especially by better-off African-Americans, a seeming paradox that many white Americans find hard to fathom.
But it is a pessimism that Barack and Michelle Obama might, depending on how things turn out, help to dispel.
If so, her abiding race consciousness _ at least a flash of which was evident again on “60 Minutes” _ could prove critical to his success, bolstering his bona fides in black America, where his biracial background, race-transcendent rhetoric and tremendous appeal to whites have been duly noted.
“She brings a sturdy insistence on not forgetting the difficulties of struggling black people, and I think that’s very helpful to Obama in his run because Obama has to win the black vote,” said Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of humanities at the University of Pennsylvania and a prolific writer on race.
Dyson, who arrived at Princeton as a graduate student the semester after Michelle Obama graduated, said the anguish in her thesis is further evidence that she will be her husband’s “built-in keep-it-real factor,” his “traveling authenticity.”
EmoryCollege political scientist Andra Gillespie, herself a product of the University of Virginia and Yale, went from aloofness on race to leadership of a black student organization in the course of her college career. To her, Michelle Obama’s thesis sounds like the work of a woman “struggling to find her place in the world, her place in the black community,” and forging a sense of “linked fate” _ the notion that her own destiny is tied to that of the race.
So, for example, when Steve Kroft on “60 Minutes” asked if she feared for her husband’s life running for president, Michelle Obama replied, “I don’t lose sleep over it because the realities are that, as a black man, Barack can get shot going to the gas station.”
Michelle Obama, 43, grew up in a working-class family on Chicago‘s South Side. Her father was a pump operator for the city. Her brother, now the head basketball coach at BrownUniversity, preceded her at Princeton by two years.
After graduating from Princeton with honors, she went to HarvardLawSchool. She next returned to Chicago, where she initially practiced corporate law but now serves as vice president for community and external relations at the University of Chicago Hospitals on the South Side.
Hawaii-born Barack Obama, 45, is the son of a black foreign student from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas. His father left when Obama was 2; Obama remained with his mother in Hawaii and, after she remarried, lived for a few years in Indonesia. In the fifth grade, he returned to Hawaii and was raised by his mother’s parents, attending a renowned private school.
In 1979, he enrolled at OccidentalCollege in Los Angeles, and after two years went Ivy League himself, transferring to ColumbiaUniversity in New York. He spent several years working as a community organizer in Chicago, then went to Harvard Law School _ Michelle had just graduated _ where he became the first African-American elected president of the Harvard Law Review.
For her thesis, the future Michelle Obama sent a survey to a sample of 400 black Princeton alumni. She asked them to describe their comfort level and time spent with blacks and whites _ before, during and after Princeton _ and to rate changes in their attitudes toward the black community and in their racial ideology. They were to choose, in her dichotomy, between a more “separationist/pluralist” view and a more “integrationist/assimilationist” one.
Eighty-nine responded. Like her, most had grown up in predominantly black neighborhoods but gone to integrated high schools. For many, Princeton came as a shock. Since 1980, black students have made up between 6 percent and 10 percent of each freshman class.
As Michelle Obama wrote in her thesis introduction, “My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my `Blackness’ than ever before. 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.”
Black students looked to one another for comfort and support, she wrote. Black consciousness soared.
At Occidental, Obama had the same experience, though he also had to compensate for having been raised in a white family.
“To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully,” he wrote in his 1995 book, “Dreams From My Father.” “It remained necessary to prove which side you were on, to show your loyalty to the black masses, to strike out and name names.”
Michelle Obama was guided in her choice of thesis topic by a consuming concern that her success might compromise her black identity. As she wrote in her conclusion:
“I wondered whether or not my education at Princeton would affect my identification with the Black community. 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.”
It was, to her, a bleak outcome _ and more dour than her survey results required. While her respondents reported spending more time, post-Princeton, with whites, and were less likely to describe themselves as “separationist,” she also found that the percentage reporting a strong motivation to benefit the black community surged at Princeton, and remained just as high after they left.
Alexis McGill, a 1993 politics graduate of Princeton, said racial ideology and strategy are more fluid than a survey like Michelle Obama’s allows.
McGill, who has run hip-hop-oriented voter registration campaigns for Russell Simmons and Sean Combs, grew up in an integrated New Jersey suburb, the daughter of successful parents with some Black Panther in their pasts. She herself lived at the Third WorldCenter at Princeton, but was also the first black woman admitted to the exclusive eating club Ivy.
“There are multiple ways of serving the same mission,” McGill said.
Michelle Obama’s fears of losing touch with her roots without ever being embraced into the mainstream led her to promise, in her thesis introduction, “to actively utilize my resources to benefit the Black community.”
And so, she told Ebony for its cover story, when Barack Obama came courting, she finally relented _ not just because of his looks and confidence and humor, but because she “was impressed by his commitment to the community.”
Their first date was dinner and a movie _ Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”