The wrath of swift-footed Achilles, of which Homer called his muse to sing,
nearly lost the Trojan War for the Greeks. The wrath of swift-tongued Michelle
Obama well might lose the White House for her husband. We had a peek into her
diary last week when the Obama campaign finally made public her undergraduate
thesis, titled "Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community". The
contents of this remarkable document sharpen the profile of Obama's women that
I offered last week (Obama's
women reveal his secret Asia Times Online, February 26.)
Barack Obama, I argued, evinces a preternatural sangfroid, for he is in America
but not of it, a Third World anthropologist profiling
Americans. But his wife's anger at America will out, for it is a profound rage
amplified by guilt.
Mrs Obama averred that she could not recall the contents of the thesis she
composed in 1985, but that cannot be quite true, for it is a poignant cry from
the heart. It explains her controversial outburst during the campaign to the
effect that she felt proud of her country for the first time in her adult life
in 2008, after "feeling so alone" in her "frustration" and "disappointment" at
Princeton both humiliated her and corrupted her, Michelle Vaughn Robinson
complains in an undergraduate prose that is all the more touching for its
clumsiness. By condescending to the young black woman from a Chicago
working-class family, the liberal university made Michelle feel like an
outsider. Worse, by giving her a ticket to financial success, Princeton caused
her to feel that she was selling out to the institutions she most despised.
Michelle's ambivalence towards Princeton, and by extension towards America, has
the makings of a tragedy of the sort found in the novels of Theodore Dreiser or
F Scott Fitzgerald, a fatal compromise in pursuit of status. Young Michelle
felt she was betraying "lower class Blacks" by assimilating:
path I have chosen to follow by attending Princeton will likely lead to my
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. This realization has presently made my goals to
actively utilize my resources to benefit the Black community more desirable.
Nonetheless, she was drawn moth-like to the flame of success:
same time, however, it is conceivable that my four years of exposure to a
predominantly White, Ivy League University has instilled within me certain
conservative values. For example, as I enter my final year at 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
Hopelessness, young Michelle sought to demonstrate,
afflicts black Princeton students who are torn between loyalties to the black
community and the pursuit of success. Her thesis tabulated the results of a
questionnaire sent to black students at Princeton on their attitudes towards
the black community and themselves. She drew a bright line between
"separatist-pluralist" attitudes, that is, rejecting assimilation into white
America, and an "integrationist-assimilationist" stance. Clearly her sympathies
lay with black separatism.
The idea of separationism and pluralism
(both cultural structural and social structural) is also discussed by
Billingsley (1968) who believes there is a need for Blacks to build up their
own communities, define themselves by new "Black" standards different from the
old White standards and exercise power and control over their own institutions
and services within the Black community.
Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton's [sic] (1967) developed definitions of
separationism in their discussion of Black Power which guided me in the
formulation and use of this concept in the study: "The concept of Black Power
rests on the fundamental premise: Before a group can enter the open society, it
must close ranks."
It was black separatists, she concluded, who
cared about the black community, whereas integrated blacks turned their backs
... the more respondents became sep[aratist]/plur[alist], during
the Pre-to-Prin period [prior to attending Princeton], the more respondents
became motivated to benefit the Black community; and the more
int[egrated]/assim[imilated] they became, the more unmotivated they became to
benefit the Black community.
Universities such as Princeton,
moreover, rig the system for the benefit of whites, as she favorably quoted Dr
Institutional policies of predominantly White
Universities have established practices which favor the preferred groups and
have ranked priorities which are meant to facilitate the tasks and improve the
conditions of White students while ignoring the needs of the Black students ...
Fraternities, sororities, homecoming activities and student government maintain
the White status-quo [sic]. As in academic areas, the social aspects of
university life systemically follow the interests of White students - the
Although the black separatists are the ones
who care about the black community, she continues, their sense of loyalty and
concern also inspires a sense of hopelessness. That is an unexpected and highly
personal conclusion. Her prose chokes up and her spelling breaks down as she
writes of this hopelessness:
[The data] demontate [sic] a strong
relationship for [sic] the change in ideologies during the Pre-to-Prin period
and the feeling that the situation of the Black lower class is hopeless, such
that the more responds became sep[aratist]/plur[alist], the more respondents;
and the more respondents became int[egrated]/assim[imilated], the less hopeless
My speculation for this finding is based on the possibility that a
separationist is more likely to have a realistic impression of the plight of
the Black lower class because of the likelihood that a separationist is more
closely associated with the Black lower class than are integrationist [sic]. By
actually working with the Black lower class or within their communities as a
result of their ideologies, a separationist [sic] may better understand the
desparation [sic] of their [sic] situation and feel more hopeless about a
resolution as opposed to an integrationist who is ignorant to [sic] their
Michelle did not imagine the contempt with which the
white liberal professors of Princeton regarded black students, for the above
passage was preserved in the final version of the thesis stored by the
university, errors and all.
Black students who reject white society, she concluded, understand the
desperation of the black lower class, and therefore feel hopeless, whereas
assimilated blacks ignore this desperation and therefore are more cheerful. It
is hard not to admire the young black woman whose indignation over the
predicament of the black lower class bursts out of the bland style of academic
sociology, and who throws the condescension of her white liberal professors
back in their faces. But that is not what afflicted the future Michelle Obama.
To the young Michelle's sense of hopelessness about the prospects for the black
lower class, Princeton added something even worse, namely guilt over "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". Despite her black separatist sympathies, Michelle Vaughn Robinson
succumbed to the temptations of which she wrote in her thesis and got a law
degree from Harvard, earning around $400,000 a year in salary and corporate
director fees by 2005.
Her "hopelessness", "frustration" and "disappointment" remain, exacerbated by
guilt over her own success. That is not speculation, but a precis of her own
account. One might speculate that the guilt became all the more poignant to the
extent her success was unearned. Michelle Obama's employer, The University of
Chicago Hospitals, paid her $121,910, a reasonable sum for the skill level
evident in her thesis, but raised this to $316,952 shortly after her husband
was elected US senator.
Unlike her husband, whose focus on his audience is unwavering, Michelle Obama
remains at the mercy of the same internal conflict that she reported in her
senior thesis. She is too bitter at the hopelessness of lower-class blacks to
assimilate, but too attracted to money and privilege to reject white society.
She hates the white institutions that made her prosperous, not only because
they cannot solve the problems of the black lower class, but even more so
because they made her feel guilty about her own success.
These internal conflicts help explain Michelle Obama's erratic behavior.
Despite her own financial success, Michelle Obama continues to preach austerity
and self-sacrifice to others. Speaking before a working-class audience in Ohio
on February 29, she urged her listeners to eschew corporate law or hedge-fund
management, which was odd, because most of them did not have a high-school
diploma, let alone a university degree:
We left corporate America,
which is a lot of what we're asking young people to do. Don't go into corporate
America. You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers.
Be a nurse. Those are the careers that we need, and we're encouraging our young
people to do that. But if you make that choice, as we did, to move out of the
money-making industry into the helping industry, then your salaries respond ...
many of our bright stars are going into corporate law or hedge-fund management
[quoted by Byron York in The National Review Online].
did not leave corporate America. She did leave the corporate law firm that
hired her out of Harvard Law School, but there is no reason to believe that
idealism drove that decision. The major law firms make partners out of a fifth
of their new hires, who slave for years for the opportunity. Michelle Obama was
not partner material for a top firm. She took more than a year to pass the
Illinois Bar Examination, a substandard result, and - as her thesis makes clear
- lacked the command of written English required for legal success. Her skills
were better suited to the hospital position she eventually filled. Not only did
she sell out, but she sold out for mediocre results.
Bitterness over the meager price that the white power structure offered for her
soul nags at Michelle Obama. At the Ohio speech cited by NRO's York, she
complained, "The salaries don't keep up with the cost of paying off [student
loans], so you're in your 40s, still paying off your debt at a time when you
have to save for your kids ... Barack and I were in that position. The only
reason we're not in that position is that Barack wrote two best-selling books
... It was like Jack and his magic beans. But up until a few years ago, we were
struggling to figure out how we would save for our kids."
But it was not only Senator Obama's writing income, it was Michelle's $200,000
salary increase and corporate directorships following his election to the US
Senate that made the family prosperous. And it wasn't just piano lessons and
summer camp, but a mansion in the Chicago suburb that represented an adequate
price for Michelle's soul.