Before you roll your eyes—surprise! another starry-eyed undergrad paean to Barack Obama!—I’ll have you know that here at the Nass we’re not in the business of writing portentous presidential endorsements, as is the wont of our esteemed colleagues over at The Prince. We’ll never know whether The Prince Editorial Board’s brave endorsement of Obama threw a New Jersey delegate or two in his favor, but, assuming that a sniveling college pseudo-journalist’s thoughts on national politics has zero bearing on the opinions of anyone, I’ll leave political exhortations to our friends at Princeton’s daily.
I, on the other hand, offer Michelle Obama, Princeton ’85, for your consideration. Politico.com recently obtained a copy of her senior thesis (which has curiously been taken out of circulation by Princeton’s Mudd Library–but was subsequently released Feb. 26—Eds.). Its topic was racial integration at Princeton—that is, a sociological survey of black Princeton alumni, investigating how their time at Princeton influenced their views on racial responsibility and community. As our nation pushes itself closer and closer to nominating a black male for president, I thought it would be interesting to see how his wife viewed our school through the prism of race.
What exactly the “first black president” would mean for the country is up for debate—for one thing, the authoritative Toni Morrison already gave the designation to Bill Clinton. But there is certainly something about Barack that transcends race; though his rhetoric is rooted in the cadences of town-hall oratory, it seems to sublimate those rhythms into something universal, pan-racial, altogether American in the same way Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley turned the raw noise of the blues into the more digestible and hip-swaying sounds of rock. And as Barack has got our hips swaying, it seems germane to ask: is the appeal of Obama that he transcends race, or rather that he absolves us, by way of his supra-racial demeanor, of asking the racial question? That is, does casting a vote for (in the words of Joe Biden) a “clean, articulate, bright African-American” triumphantalize our racial harmony while ignoring that fact that, racially, shit is still pretty fucked up?
I was glad to find that the young Michelle Obama asked the tough questions. And sad to find that, since 1985, little at Princeton has changed. “My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my ‘Blackness’ than ever before…I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don’t belong,” she says, in the introduction. A quick stroll around an eating club on a weekend, or Frist any given night can confirm that, while the school has made great leaps in diversity, the reputation of Princeton that Michelle cites—“infamous for being racially the most conservative of the Ivy League universities”—still holds true today.
Her thesis is hardly revealing beyond a few sound bites, and its conclusions would not be noteworthy if you came upon them devoid of any context. It suffers from the same logical fallacy that the kids walking around Frist with their pencils and psych surveys are deluded by—that the hurried answers of subjective respondents can somehow en masse constitute something “objective” and scientific. A personal account of Michelle’s life at Princeton would go a lot further than her jargon about “benefit attitudes” and “value priorities,” but I digress—the limits of the social sciences are not really at issue here.
Rather, something is clear: during her time at Princeton Ms. Obama struggled to define her role as a member of her race, struggled to accept the homogenizing influence of the Ivy League social order. It may be that the appeal of Obama’s candidacy to whites can be, in part, an excuse to pat themselves on the back for their “tolerance” while doing little to ameliorate America’s increasing stratification along lines of class and race. Look at it this way: Tiger Woods is universally popular because he exudes the same kind of post-raciality as Barack; however, were he to exercise that standing as a podium for social commentary à la Muhammad Ali, one can imagine Nike might have something to say about it. It is comforting, then, to consider that, were Obama to take his seat in the Oval Office, there will be a Princeton graduate whispering in his ear, one who still feels the sting of the days she spent among our “spires and gargoyles.” I would like to think, in the case of an event like Katrina, when racism rears its stark head, Michelle wouldn’t shrink from calling things how she sees them, and Kanye West would have no reason to declare, “Barack Obama hates black people.” Post-racism, indeed. And now you’ve got your undergrad paean to Barack.