According to Politico.com, “Attempts to retrieve the document through Princeton proved unsuccessful, with school librarians having been pestered so much for access to the thesis that they have resorted to reading from a script when callers inquire about it. Media officers at the prestigious university were similarly unhelpful, claiming it is ‘not unusual’ for a thesis to be restricted and refusing to discuss ‘the academic work of alumni.’ Politico.com also reported on February 23rd that “the Obama campaign, however, quickly responded to a request for the thesis by Politico,” which placed it on its web site. It is still there in PDF format, and has been placed on other sites as well. However, Princeton University did not resume making copies of the thesis available to the public again until March 25th, a month after the Politico web posting. I have still not been able to determine when the block was placed on the thesis in the first place by Princeton.
When I called Princeton University on June 23rd and again on June 25th to inquire about the availability of the thesis, and the previous restrictions on it, I found that even after the passage of more than four months ”media officers at the prestigious university” were just as “similarly unhelpful” as they had been four months earlier. I was told by “Communications” officer Emily Aronson, to whom Princeton’s Mudd Library referred me, that the block on public access to the thesis had been placed “for a credible reason,” which she declined to give, and for “a limited period of time,” which she declined to specify. She also declined to say whether or not the ban had originally been placed with a termination date immediately after the November election. Ms. Aronson said that the block on public access to the thesis had been requested by “the Obama campaign,” but declined to answer whether or not it had been requested by Michele Obama herself (another Princeton employee, however. told me that restrictions on public access to a Princeton theses can normally be placed only by the author of the thesis, or someone legally authorized to act on his/her behalf). She directed me to Michelle Obama’s spokesperson, Ms. Katie McCormick Lelyveld, for any further information. In short, this “Communications” officer was singularly uncommunicative.
Ms. McCormick Lelyveld proved equally unhelpful. She also refused to say when the block had been placed or when it had been withdrawn, and whether or not November 5th was the day to which the block originally was to have continued. She would say only that the block had been in place “for a very short period of time.” She attributed the block to a joint decision of the Obama campaign and Princeton, but like the Princeton “Communications” office declined to say what Michelle Obama’s role had been in this decision. She said that the reason for the block placed on the thesis was the desire of both the Obama campaign and Princeton to “sort out” and “filter” the large number of requests for it. She gave no indication as to which requests the Obama camp wished to “filter” or “sort”, nor any explanation as to why this process would need to take until precisely November 5, 2008! Ms. McCormick Lelyveld complained that the story was “old news,” asked why I had not inquired with her about it in January “when the story broke,” and asked why I considered it news at all.
To answer Ms. McCormick-Lelyveld’s question: obviously, a ban on public access set to expire immediately after the presidential election could only have one purpose - to prevent information that Michelle Obama and or others in the Obama campaign thought could lose their candidate votes. The attempt to prevent the public from reading Ms. Robinson-Obama’s thesis is also significant to the extent that it indicates that the Obama campaign has no scruples about hiding documents that it considers unhelpful to his candidacy, even those normally available to the public such as college senior theses. So much for the transparency and openness of the Obama campaign.
But the contents of the paper are of greater interest. They shed some light on the ideological background of the woman who may soon be the principal advisor to the next President of the United States.
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson’s thesis is obsessed with the distinction between “Blacks” and “Whites.” The words ““American” and “Americans” appear rarely in it, - seven times by my count; the expression “U.S.A.” occurs once, and “ U.S. ” once. The word “America ” does not appear in it at all. But the words “Black” and “White,” always capitalized, and always referring to racial groups, appear by my count 475 times and 181 times, respectively - in every case, judging from the context, referring to Blacks and Whites in the United States. There are no references at all to Hispanic, Asian or Amerindian Americans! It would be hard to find a more dramatic way for the author to indicate that her feeling that the United States consists of two nations, not one, and that the 20-30 million Americans who are not a part of either the “Black” or the “White” nation do not exist at all.
The thesis paper consists of 64 pages in the main body of the text, plus seven pages of prefatory material and an appendix of 27 pages. Despite occasional grammatical lapses and ambiguous language, for the most part the composition shows an impressive command both of the English language and of sociological terminology for a college senior. The thesis is organized around a questionnaire that Michelle Robinson sent to 400 Black graduates of Princeton, of whom 89 sent replies (no Whites or other non-Blacks were polled), and Robinson’s analysis of the results. Its stated goal is to discover the correlation between the “time” that the graduates “spent” with other Blacks “as opposed” (and the word “opposed” is used), to the time they spent with Whites, as well as the “ideology” of the graduates on the one hand, and their commitment to “benefit the Black community”, and “help the Black lower class” on the other. Her initial “hypothesis,” was that Blacks who spent more time with other Blacks than with Whites, and who adhered to a “separatist/pluralist” ideology, would be more eager to benefit the Black community and help the Black lower class than those who spent more time with Whites and supported an “integrationist/assimilations” philosophy. Not surprisingly, her analysis of her poll data results confirms her initial hypothesis.
The thesis implies that Black college graduates who wish to “benefit the Black community” and to help the Black “lower class” should spend more time with Blacks than with Whites, whether in their professional work, family life or recreational activities, and adhere to a “separatist/pluralist” ideology as opposed to an “integrationist/assimilations” philosophy. This amounts to a rationale for Black separatism.
Michelle Robinson-Obama argues that when Black people “spend time” with Whites, they lose their commitment to “benefiting” the Black community and “lower class Blacks.” She describes Blacks who have integrated into the larger society as “ignorant” of and “unmotivated” to help the Black underclass. Ironically, the only evidence from her survey of Black Princeton graduates that she cites to support her conclusion that “integrationist/assimilations” Blacks lack motivation to help the Black lower class is that they reported feeling less “helpless” about the plight of this group of Black Americans than did Black separationists!
Even the involvement of Black Princeton graduates with their professions is seen as detracting from their commitment to the black community. The author posits a zero sum game - any time spent with Whites means less time spent with, and hence less commitment to help, Blacks. The commitment of some Princeton graduates to benefit “the American community at large” is mentioned only once in the thesis, and is promptly dismissed with the remark,” which is, of course predominantly White.” The author by implication rejects the idea that Black Princeton graduates have any obligation to help “the American community at large,” and even implies that such a commitment amounts to a sell-out to Whites.
The future Mrs. Obama does not present any evidence to support her claims that “Predominantly White universities like Princeton are socially and academically designed to cater to the needs of the White students comprising the bulk of their enrollments,” and “Activities organized by University groups such as Student Government rarely, if ever, take into account the diverse interests which exist at a University that is not 100% White.” She immediately undercuts her own complaint that “there is only one major University recognized organization on campus designed specifically for the intellectual interests of Black and other Third World students.” (a heavily qualified “only”) by referring in the next paragraph to four other Black organizations that were active on campus - at least one of which, the “Princeton University Thoughts Table,” certainly seems to have been aimed specifically at addressing the “intellectual needs” of Black students (Were these organizations “recognized” [whatever that means by this word] by Princeton or not? The author does not tell us). She complains that “presently Blacks comprise only about 10% of total enrollment,” at Princeton, without mentioning that this is “about” the percentage of Black Americans in the American population as a whole!
Since Princeton and other major American Universities, at the time that the thesis was written (1985) were making energetic efforts to recruit Black students, and were admitting large numbers of Black students who did not meet the academic standards required for admission of White students (Robinson-Obama herself was one such student), her complaints of discrimination against Black students at Princeton and other “Ivy League” colleges don’t ring true. Rather, they sound like the fashionable whining of a privileged young woman.
Robinson-Obama asserts that “there is a distinctive Black culture very different from White culture. Elements of Black culture which make it unique from White culture such as its music, its language, the struggles and a ‘consciousness’ shared by its people may be attributed 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 [not even American Indians?]. However, with the increasing integration of Blacks into the mainstream society, many ‘integrated Blacks’ have lost touch with Black culture in their attempts to become adjusted and comfortable in their new culture - the White culture. Some of these Blacks are no longer able to enjoy the qualities which make Black culture so unique or are unable to openly share their culture with other Blacks because they have become so far removed from these experiences and, in some instances, ashamed of them as a result of their integration [p54].” Surely, she exaggerates the cultural differences separating Americans. After all, White Americans have enthusiastically embraced numerous musical styles that originated in the Black American community - spirituals, gospel, the blues, ragtime, jazz, big band, rock and hip-hop, to name only a few. The active participation of White musicians in some of these styles, most notably jazz and rock, has also greatly narrowed the cultural gap between these two American communities. For the most part, Black and White Americans eat the same foods (even allowing for Black ethnic specialties), watch the same movies and television shows, and play the same music videos and computer games. And they speak the same English language - albeit sometimes with different accents. A distinctively American culture that comprises, Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, American Indians and members of other groups does exist. And there is no evidence at all that Black Americans who successfully integrate into the larger society lose their interest in Black culture or are ashamed of it. For that matter, millions of White Americans enjoy the cultural productions of Black Americans, and feel no shame in doing so.
Robinson Obama’s thesis was written 23 years ago, and of course the views of a 21-year-old college senior are not necessarily those of a 44-year-old professional such as Michelle Obama is today. However, there are disturbing indications that her view of the United States and Black-White relations in our country has not changed all that much in 23 years. Her remark during a campaign speech as recently as February 2008 that “… for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback,” suggests underlying negative feelings about American society that have remained unchanged since her “adult life” began. And is it a pure coincidence that this “adult life” began around 1985, when her senior thesis was written?
There are also indications that Barack as well as Michelle Obama have continued to adhere to the two-American-nations-and-peoples doctrine of Michelle’s thesis until quite recently, if not until the present moment. Jeremiah Wright, who was Barack Obama’s pastor for 20 years, and Michelle Obama’s for at least 15, and who married the couple in October 1992, has on numerous occasions expressed views similar to those found in the Robinson-Obama thesis. Barack Obama has praised Wright and described him as his “spiritual advisor” on numerous occasions, and even borrowed the title of his book The Audacity of Hope from one of Wright’s sermons; he only disassociated himself from Wright in May 2008, under enormous pressure from the media.
The Trinity United Church of Christ, of which Wright was the pastor for 37 years, has published an advertising video that describes it as a “Black church,” (implicitly discouraging Whites, Hispanics and other non-Blacks from joining), and that identifies the “country” of its members as “Africa,” not America. Barack and Michelle Obama did not resign as members of the church, “with some sadness,” until May 31, 2008 - two months after Wright stepped down as its pastor.
Instead of dismissing the Princeton thesis as “old news’” while saying nothing of its contents, Michelle and Barack Obama should candidly discuss these contents with the American people, and explain just how their present views differ from those Michelle expressed in 1985. I see no reason why Barack Obama should be entrusted with the most powerful office in the United States if he and his “ears” (as her spokesperson Ms.McCormick-Lelyveld characterizes Michelle Obama) are unwilling to do so.
A First Lady who believes, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, that Black is Black and White is White, and never the twain shall meet, does not bode well for America’s future.
John Landau contributed to this article.