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February 23, 2008
'IT OFTEN SEEMS AS IF, TO THEM, I WILL ALWAYS BE BLACK FIRST and a student second." So reads Michelle Obama's senior thesis, written when she was a student at Princeton. You can read the whole thing, which I'm not going to do, but I did read the first few pages, and nothing I read troubles me. I should add that I attended her speech at Madison — the one where she said "for the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country, and not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change" — and that line didn't jump out at me. But she's the wife of a presidential candidate, so her words will necessarily be raw material for attacks, especially what she's saying now. But what she wrote as a college student in 1985? She had much more reason to feel alienated than the average college student — and anyway, feeling alienated is a classic part of the young American experience. Amba has read much more of the thesis than I have, and she has some excellent observations:
What was being weighed here... was whether it was better to participate in the common life or to build up a separate community with its own resources and institutions, as "a necessary stage for the development of the Black community before this group integrates into the 'open society'." Before, not instead of. Ideas are always psychobiography, and you may feel here the young Michelle's sense that she needed to gain confidence in a context of people who were familiar and supportive before venturing forth into a more ambiguous, less embracing world that was harder to read and harder to trust.
ADDED: If you want to argue with me, come over here
and you can.
AND: Captain Ed has read the whole thesis:
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.