Michelle Obama: Sociologist

White denial of racism is central to this serious, yet often fatuous, political season, as we see in the many web and media debates over a senior thesis written by the young Princeton sociology student Michelle Obama some 23 years ago. Whites are attacking her for writing honestly and candidly, from data she gathered in 90 questionnaires returned by Princeton’s Black alumni about their views, especially about their ideological focus, commitments to the Black community, and contacts with other Blacks during and after their Princeton experience.  Princeton University’s librarians have so far restricted access to Obama’s senior thesis, but you can find it here.


In searching the web today I found there are already some 26,000 references to this story of a 1985 senior thesis entitled, “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” and recorded under her maiden name, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson. One would think that honest writing about U.S. racial matters from someone who has both lived it and studied it would get serious public attention and turn the focus on the often isolating and negative impact that predominantly white campus climates have on African American students, but the opposite has, for the most part, happened.


We also see this in the vulture-like media attention to her painful life-reflecting comments that:

“for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country. And not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change. I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction.”

Reactions to this by various, including well-educated white commentators are clueless about the deep structures of racism still undergirding U.S. society.   A great many African Americans, probably an overwhelming majority, would know exactly what she means.


One of the interesting stories on her senior sociology thesis can be found on politico.com, by Jeffrey Ressner.   Like a majority of Black students at other historically white institutions in numerous more recent studies (see the summaries here and here, Obama and other Princeton University students have faced problematical, isolating, and often negative racial experiences on historically white college campuses. In her sociology thesis Obama comments on her own experience:

“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 under which I interact with whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and a student second.”

Sadly, this is commonly reported by Black students on historically white institutions today, as both Jessie and Lou have reported in recent posts, and as can be seen in the books linked above.


Obama notes that in 1985 Princeton University had only five tenure-track Black faculty and modest numbers of Black students, a white world indeed! From her 90 questionnaires she found that for many Black alumni/ae going to Princeton meant, as she feared for herself:

“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.”

One politico.com commentator at the end of the Ressner column, which accents Princeton’s refusal to release the thesis, makes a comment I suspect many whites would make:

“It was 1985 and a very very very very different United States.”

Sadly, the empirical data on historically white institutions, including our colleges and universities, strongly suggest that 2008 is all too like 1985, for a great many college students of color, and most especially African Americans.  In our field research, The Agony of Education: Black Students in White Colleges and Universities, we see many Black students at historically white institutions giving accounts like this one with a white professor outside a university classroom:

“This is one time in a social science department. I had a professor. . . . One day we were talking about Black stereotypes, and you know how they say like, ‘They’re criminals and always wanting to rob people.’ So after class I wanted to talk to her. And a girlfriend and I were standing waiting for her, so she’s coming out of the class, and she’s all like ‘Oh, what?’ And I say, ‘Can I talk to you, whatever?’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, I thought you wanted to rob me or something.’ ” Being framed like this in negative ways, even in naïve joking fashion, often has the kind of isolating or negative impact today that Michelle Obama discusses in her senior thesis.

As the famous educator John Henry Newman once put it, the university should be “a seat of wisdom” and “a light of the world.”  Yet, as Obama’s thesis and much social science research later show, wisdom and light are typically not everyday realities when it comes to racial isolation and other barriers on predominantly white college campuses (see, for example, our new book on white college students’ racist performances). Denials notwithstanding, the empirical data show that serious racial barriers remain widespread on historically white campuses. 

Comments

  1. Ah-ha! She’s a sociologist! I knew I liked her. 😉

    On a more serious note, I think it will be interesting to watch for the gendered dimension of white denial in the racism directed toward Michele Obama.

  2. Adia

    I think it’s also interesting to note the raced/gendered critiques of Michelle Obama that are emerging. A recent Wall Street Journal article I read included several racialized, gendered “code words” describing her relationship with Barack. I don’t have the article in front of me, but I remember the article reporting “concerns” that she was bossy, domineering, and potentially emasculating. I know Hillary Clinton has also been characterized in similar ways, but given that Black women face a particular stereotype of being too controlling and unwilling to “let Black men be men,” I am not very optimistic about how mainstream media will depict her in the coming months. (I also worry that certain conservative sectors of Black men may be co-opted by this rhetoric and hold it against her that she doesn’t take a backseat to Barack.)

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