February 22, 2008

Bring Your No-Doz

Earlier today, I noted the irrelevance of Michelle Obama's 1985 Princeton thesis to the 2008 presidential campaign of her husband Barack. To the extent that Mrs. Obama participates in the campaign, her speeches now are certainly relevant, but her state of mind 23 years ago isn't. Dissenters said that the fact that Princeton had embargoed the paper showed that it likely held some embarrassing assertions or strident rhetoric on race.

Well, I have good news for everyone. The Politico got a copy of Mrs. Obama's work from the Obama campaign and has it available to anyone who wants to read it:

Michelle Obama's senior year thesis at Princeton University, obtained exclusively 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has been the subject of much conjecture on the blogosphere and elsewhere in recent weeks, as it has been "temporarily withdrawn" from Princeton's library until after this year's presidential election in November.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.

And now I have bad news for those who hoped to mine some gold in this thesis; it's not there. It's a typical college thesis that has perhaps a slightly more personal nature than most. It's a well-written look at the differences between black alumni's socialization patterns with blacks and whites before and during their Princeton years, and the effect that it had after their graduation.

It found -- surprise! -- that black students who socialized more with whites before and during Princeton were more comfortable with whites later, and those who didn't, weren't. Interestingly, they all more closely identified with the black community during the Princeton years, and that mostly declined when they went out into the world afterwards. There were more subtle variations on ideological trends, and attempts to drill down into "literateness" and other subjective analyses, which made the project rather ambitious if not completely convincing. At the conclusion, she acknowledges that her more hard-line attitudes and assumptions about blacks who did not meet her definition of "identification" were incorrect and naive.

It contains nothing particularly astonishing or shocking. Anyone who attended an African-American studies class (as I did) would recognize the concepts and the authors. She quotes Stokely Carmichael, which is about as controversial as it gets. Mrs. Obama talks about her own feelings of alienation and ascribes them to being part of a relatively small minority on campus; I'd argue that feelings of alienation are normal for everyone at a university, but I can't speak to her experience. At any rate, there's no declaration of black separatism on her behalf. In fact, it's quite the opposite.

Readers can download the paper in four parts at Politico. Put on a pot of coffee.

UPDATE: The Politico got the thesis from the Obama campaign. I was being a bit snarky by writing that they "somehow" got a copy, and thought the blockquote material would make that obvious. Apparently not, so I've adjusted the text for a more straightforward approach.

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