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.Continue Reading
"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."
Access to Michelle Obama’s senior thesis was restricted until after the 2008 presidential election.
In every U.S. presidential election campaign, the two major parties’ candidates become the subjects of prolonged and intense scrutiny, with seemingly everything they’ve ever said or done becoming fodder for endless analysis, interpretation and criticism. The scrutiny doesn’t always stop with the candidates themselves, however — their parents,
siblings, children, and other close associates sometimes find themselves the subjects of fervent investigation as well.
Candidates’ spouses, in particular, are often a subject of great interest. Not only are they relatives that candidates have “chosen,” but they live with the candidates day in and day out, and they sometimes serve as political surrogates by stumping for their husbands or wives on the campaign trail. They probably know the inner workings of the candidates’ minds better than anyone else, and they’re presumed to be important sources of advice, counsel, and influence. All of this means that the senior thesis of Michelle Obama, wife of Illinois senator (and leading Democratic presidential contender) Barack Obama would naturally be a subject of considerable interest, especially since the subject of that thesis is itself a significant political topic. The former Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, who graduated from Princeton University in 1985 with a B.A. in sociology (and later earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1988), wrote her senior undergraduate thesis on the subject of “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community.”
Michelle Obama’s thesis became a matter of controversy (outside of its subject matter) in early 2008 when some interested parties who attempted to retrieve its content were informed by Princeton that access to the thesis had been restricted until after the presidential election in November 2008. Regardless of the reasons behind it, such a restriction naturally engendered suspicion that someone or something (in this case, presumably the Obama campaign itself) had a vested interest in keeping the information from reaching the public, which in turn served to heighten interest in the contents of the thesis.
The Daily Princetonian noted that prior to 26 February 2008 “callers to Mudd [Manuscript Library] requesting information on Obama’s thesis were told that the thesis has been made ‘temporarily unavailable’ and were directed to the University Office of Communications,” but the university lifted that restriction after the Obama campaign made a copy of the thesis available through the web site politico.com.
As for the content of the thesis, the Daily Princetonian summarized it thusly:
After surveying 89 black graduates, Obama concluded that attending the University as an undergraduate decreased the extent to which black alumni identified with the black community as a whole.
Obama drew on her personal experiences as an example.
“As I enter my final year at Princeton, I find myself striving for many of the same goals as my White classmates — acceptance to a prestigious graduate school or a high-paying position in a successful corporation,” she wrote, citing the University’s conservative values as a likely cause.
“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,” she said, noting the small size of the African-American studies department and that there were only five black tenured professors at the University across all departments.
Obama studied the attitudes of black Princeton alumni to determine what effect their time at Princeton had on their identification with the black community. “My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my ‘Blackness’ than ever before,” she wrote in her 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.”
Much scrutiny and discussion has been focused on a single phrase contained within the thesis, the statement that “blacks must join in solidarity to combat a white oppressor.” This phrase has repeatedly been quoted out of context and presented as if it reflected Michelle Obama’s own philosophy, but in its full context it is clearly her speculation about what she thought some of the respondents she surveyed for her thesis (i.e., students who had attended Princeton in earlier years) might have been feeling:
It is possible that Black individuals either chose to or felt pressure to come together with other Blacks on campus because of the belief that Blacks must join in solidarity to combat a White oppressor. As the few blacks in a white environment it is understandable that respondents might have felt a need to look out for one another.