Saturday, August 16, 2008

Michelle Obama's thesis

Michelle Obama's senior year thesis in sociology at Princeton University, obtained from the school by Politico, has already been stereotyped. Politico calls it "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.'" "My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my 'blackness' than ever before," the future Ms. Obama 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. 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."

That quote from the introduction had already led a friend of mine to say that the thesis was about “racial isolation at Princeton,” but it turns out to be a throwaway line of little relevance to the actual subject of the work. Its title was "Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” and it was not about her own and her contemporaries’ experience at Princeton at all. Instead, it was a rather sophisticated and very thoroughly researched effort to define the experience of four years of Princeton on the first substantial cohorts of black students who attended that august institution (always, actually, the most southern-dominated of the Ivy League) from the late 1960s until the early 1980s, when she entered herself. Having secured 400 names of black alumni from Princeton, Michelle Robinson (as she then was) mailed them each a detailed questionnaire about their attitudes and associations before, during, and after their college experience. The thesis details the results of the 89 replies that she received. (I wonder how many of those who threw the letter away still remember it and realize who that poor undergrad turned out to be!)

I have advised and graded a good many undergraduate theses at outstanding institutions in my time, and this one was certainly superior. Her adviser allowed a writing slip or two to go through (one dangling participle stood out), and I was annoyed by the statement that institutions like Princeton had only started admitting black students in the 1960s. (Certainly they didn't admit very many, but Harvard, for one, started admitting a few in the late 1800s.) These are however minor points. The author assembled a mass of fascinating data, run it through a computer many times, and distilled rather striking results which often obviously surprised her, as well as her readers. Her attempts to explain some of her most challenging results were careful, even-handed, and provocative. Her presentation was invariably clear. And rather than draw any racially charged conclusions, she essentially let the results speak for themselves.

The effect of four years at Princeton on the bulk of the sample turned out to be paradoxical indeed. Of those who replied, half defined themselves as lower middle class, with the rest about evenly divided between lower class and upper middle class. A majority had gone to integrated schools, and their high schools were more integrated, on the average, than their elementary schools. Michelle Obama focused on two issues: how the amount of time they spent with blacks, as opposed to whites, changed at Princeton (and how it changed again after they left), and how their beliefs changed. Regarding their beliefs, she asked about their adherence to one of two kinds of ideologies: one, separatist/pluralist, similar to the 1960s black power view that held that black people had first to consolidate within their own communities before increasing their interactions with whites, and the other integrationist/assimilationist. She was also curious about their degree of commitment to improving the lot of the rest of the black community.

The striking result that the thesis revolved around was this. The most common result of attending Princeton for her respondents was to spend less time with white people and to become more receptive to separatist/pluralist ideologies than in their high school years. After graduation and moving into the work force, however, things began moving in the other direction, and her respondents most commonly said that they were now spending more time with white people and tended more towards integrationist-assimilationist ideologies. She also found, not surprisingly, that her respondents tended to value their individual goals, rather than goals for their family, their race, or their God, more highly throughout, and that professional goals took a much larger role after graduation. (That was one question where I thought a white control group would have been interesting—I strongly suspect that it would have shown exactly the same results.)

The thesis included another interesting finding. Asked whether they were more comfortable intellectually with blacks, whites, or both equally, a significant majority responded both equally (although once again, those choosing blacks rose as percentage when referring to their Princeton years and fell back again afterwards.) Socially, on the other hand, a large majority consistently felt more comfortable among blacks. The goal of intellectual assimilation, in short, seemed to be doing very well, even though the Princeton experience itself had done less than nothing to advance it. Social assimilation was making less progress, but I see less reason to be very concerned about that.

The question that demanded a response, obviously, was why racial isolation and separatist attitudes increased at Princeton. Michelle Obama answered it carefully and responsibly. She mentioned some one named De Joie who had argued that elite white institutions were actually quite discriminatory towards black students, but stated that she certainly had not been able to confirm that view. (Apparently De Joie hadn’t published her findings—I suspect they had been presented at some kind of public lecture.) Instead, she speculated that blacks at Princeton fell back upon one another because of the loss of the black support group that their families (and in many cases, presumably, their neighborhoods) had provided during their integrated elementary and high school years, which made it easier to deal with any problems that arose in interacting with white students and white authorities. That is possible. Putting a slightly different slant on the matter, I would speculate that young black men and women suddenly plunged into an elite white institution could easily worry about losing a large part of their identity and would therefore try to reinforce it among themselves. Faculty indoctrination was apparently not much of an issue—the black studies program at Princeton was still very small when the thesis was written. Although the author didn’t (understandably) put it this way, her thesis was really about black baby boomers at Princeton. She, like her husband, was in the leading edge of the new generation X, and their generation's experience may have been different.

I have recently been reminded of an interesting study by a psychologist of my acquaintance in the early 1980s (about the time Michelle was writing) about white male reactions to minorities and women. The study found that members of the majority did not instinctively look down upon minorities. Instead, their opinions tended towards extremes. They were inclined to see a smart black as smarter than he or she really was, and a less intelligent one as less intelligent still. I admit that I was impressed by the study because I realized that I probably shared that tendency myself. (To state the results a little differently, one might suggest that true assimilation occurs when one is entitled to be regarded as average!) I do not think I am falling victim to it in this case, however. Like most good undergraduate theses from top schools, Michelle Obama’s was both more interesting and far more readable than the average professional academic journal article. She may well have been too smart to become an academic. She became a lawyer instead, and based upon her undergraduate work, she is probably a very capable one. Meanwhile, she had been exposed to, but had not succumbed to, some of the more inflammatory ideological currents that have been swirling around academia during the last forty years. And somewhere along the line, she had learned a healthy respect for facts which her Princeton experience did not undermine. I certainly would have enjoyed having her in my class.

4 comments:

Harvey Silverglate said...

David: I was in Princeton, Class of 1964. There was one American black in the class -- the son of a high-ranking military officer -- and about nine children of African royalty or potentates. As a Brooklyn-born Jew, I think I felt about as assimilated as my one black classmate. It was high academically, but socially it was a southern boys' finishing school. Harvey Silverglate, Cambridge, MA

Anonymous said...

I am an average white female who attended Indiana University along with a black female (a good friend) who shared my name "Pat". Neither of us were at the top of our class. We studied together, laughted, and schooled together, until one day she never showed up. Upon inquiry, I was told she left due to racism. Surprised and speechless, I didn't get it. Never had I seen, heard, or detected anything to indicate racism.
I don't know all she felt as a black girl, but I know the social racism I felt as a plain country girl in a big university...painful, as I experienced the nursing director's verbal abuse. Had my black friend stayed, we could have graduated together as equals.

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