March 13, 2008


Alienated in the U.S.A.: An unguarded comment from Michelle Obama speaks volumes about race and assimilation in modern America. (Evan Thomas, 3/13/08, Newsweek)

Princeton in the early 1980s had been accepting blacks in significant numbers for less than two decades of its more than two-century history (none before World War II). Black students tended to self-segregate, as they did and still do on many campuses. Although, as she notes in the thesis, the university strongly encourages integration, there is still a fair amount of self-segregation at Princeton (where I teach a journalism course). Black students in Michelle's time embraced a "consciousness" attributable to "the injustices and oppressions suffered by this race of people which are not comparable to the experiences of any other race of people through this country's history," she writes.

For her thesis, Michelle surveyed 400 black Princeton alumni (about a fourth of whom responded). She writes that she was surprised—and clearly disappointed—to find that as these alums entered the wider world, in which they overwhelmingly reported great upward social mobility, they ceased to identify primarily with the black community.

Of course, the same happened to her when she entered the real world. Indeed, she somewhat reluctantly anticipates her fate in her thesis. She says that her sense of alienation while at Princeton sharpened her goal to "utilize my resources to benefit the Black community. At the same time, however, it is conceivable that my four years of exposure has instilled within me certain conservative values. For example, as I enter my final year in Princeton, I find myself striving for many of the same goals as my White classmates—acceptance to a prestigious graduate or professional school or a high paying position in a successful corporation. Thus, my goals after Princeton are not as clear as before."

Michelle Obama is by now so well assimilated that she can wear a dress and pearls that are photocopies of the clothes and jewels worn by Jackie Kennedy—and pull it off with grace and panache. At the same time, no one should doubt her blackness (or her husband's, as she has made clear more than once). She has found a way to thrive in any world that she wants. But it is perhaps unsurprising that, for an unguarded moment on the campaign trail, she reflected the alienation she felt at being a lonely working-class black woman at a rich white man's school long ago.

Color us surprised that at a moment of maximum acceptance she would have needed to have her guard up to avoid revealing such core resentment. What would she be like at a bad moment?

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 13, 2008 2:34 PM
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