Michelle Obama’s Thesis

As several others have noted recently, Princeton University, demonstrating the openness and dedication to the free and unfettered exchange of ideas, no matter how controversial, for which American higher education is noted, decided to make Michelle Obama’s 1985 senior thesis unavailable until Nov. 5, 2008. Normally such theses are available in one of Princeton’s libraries.

Now, however, Politico has obtained a copy from the Obama campaign,, made it available (here, here, here, and here) and provided this short discussion of it that is well worth reading.

Among the revealing excerpts noted by Politico:

… she said only one major university-recognized group on campus was “designed specifically for the intellectual and social interests of blacks and other third world students.”

….

“My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my ‘blackness’ than ever before,” the future Mrs. Obama wrote in her thesis 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.”

….

Obama writes that the path she chose by attending Princeton would likely lead to her “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.”

Mrs. Obama’s experience at Princeton was not unique. In the era of affirmative action it was in fact quite common for black students to feel blacker after they got to college than they had before. And if she learned there to identify herself as a “third world student,” perhaps it becomes less surprising that she found something to be proud of in the decidedly first world United States only quite recently.

But perhaps more revealing than the fashionable racial radical chic was the “mindset” (as her husband might say) of disdain for conventional, i.e., conservative, rules and principles. Where, you wonder, do I see such contempt for the established order in these short excepts?

Easy. Re-read the quotes above, noting the liberal (which is to say, incorrect), even profligate use of the semi-colon to separate items that all careful (which is to say, conservative) grammarians know it shouldn’t.

Semicolons have essentially two uses.

  • A semicolon separates items in a list when the items themselves have internal punctuation: Gabrielle likes oranges; cherries; and red, yellow, and green apples.

  • A semicolon separates two closely related clauses. In this function, it is slightly stronger than a comma, but weaker than a period. The clause before the semicolon and the clause after the semicolon should be complete sentences on their own; you should be able to replace the semicolon with a period and have two grammatically correct sentences. The previous sentence is an example.

It remains to be seen whether Mrs. Obama’s demonstrated disrespect for the proper use of the semi-colon will be excused as just a schoolgirl indiscretion or whether it will be viewed as part and parcel of husband’s difficulty with proper attribution.

Say What? (16)

  1. LTEC February 23, 2008 at 1:02 pm | | Reply

    In referring to “a white cultural and social structure” it appears that she thought of herself as “black first and a student second”, so it’s not surprising that she perceived (whether true of false) that others thought of her that way. But that was all a long time ago, and she has said that she is now embarassed by all that racial obsession she engaged in. She did say that, right?

    But seriously John, semicolons???

  2. Cobra February 23, 2008 at 2:22 pm | | Reply

    John writes:

    >>>”Mrs. Obama’s experience at Princeton was not unique. In the era of affirmative action it was in fact quite common for black students to feel blacker after they got to college than they had before.”

    As opposed to the era BEFORE Affirmative Action, where SEGREGATION was the norm and not the exception?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HH-eC4LgZT4

    John, you’re SURELY not trying to claim here that African-American children going to school BEFORE 1970 were all welcomed and embraced with open arms by White children and their parents, which negated the type of feelings Michelle Obama and her peers may have felt during their college years?

    John writes:

    >>>”And if she learned there to identify herself as a “third world student,” perhaps it becomes less surprising that she found something to be proud of in the decidedly first world United States only quite recently.”

    Well, one doesn’t have to look any further than this BLOG to find white posters who openly feel that African-American students don’t belong on the same campus as White students.

    There are posters on Discriminations who will claim that African-Americans are intellectually inferior based upon standardized test scores (which is a stone’s throw away from simply labeling us “inferior.”)

    Of course, some of the folks I agree with who post here chastise me for keeping up these debates and arguments. But you must remember John, Discriminations is not a private website. ANYBODY, including African-American students can simply log on, and read what you and other posters have to say. Given its CONSTANT and repetative assault on nearly everything concerning Blacks here (think-tank funded and RNC approved Blacks not-withstanding), can you at least UNDERSTAND why a young African-American college student logging on to Discriminations would get, oh…just an inkling of a notion similiar to Michelle Obama’s?

    LTEC writes:

    >>>”But seriously John, semicolons???”

    LOL. He has to get his shots in somehow. I suppose Michelle Obama isn’t a “think-tank funded or RNC approved Black”, huh?

    –Cobra

  3. Dom February 23, 2008 at 2:56 pm | | Reply

    If you’ve read this blog often enough, you would recorgnize JR’s obsession with punctuation. I have the same obsession, and I find it interesting. And yes, it was the first thing I noticed about Obama’s quotes.

    JR, have you noticed that overusing a semicolon ws common at one time? For example, here is Charles Dickens:

    “They scarcely seemed to enter the city; for the city rather seemed to spring up about them, and encompass them of its own act. But there they were, in the heart of it; on ‘Change amongst the merchants; who hurried up and down, and chinked the money in their pockets and conversed in groups, and looked at their watches, and trifled thoughtfully with their great gold seals; and so forth as Scrooge had seen them often.”

  4. Shouting Thomas February 23, 2008 at 2:56 pm | | Reply

    Cobra,

    I graduated from the University of Illinois in 1971.

    From the moment I arrived on campus from my small farm town, I was hectored and ridiculed by leftist professors for my redneck origins. This treatment continued throughout my stay at the university. I doubt that it’s changed. In fact, I suspect that it has become much worse.

    The lower IQ test scores as a group for blacks… well, it’s a fact.

    You are dragging out the old, boring self-esteem argument. It’s nonsense. Everybody gets ridiculed, put down and challenged in this world. Your argument is that blacks, somehow alone among all people, cannot withstand this and prosper.

    You are the one who is admitting inferiority and pleading for a handout. Quit whining about how tough the world is, and maybe you’ll get the respect your crave. So long as you keep harping on the self-esteem crap, you will be the subject of derision and contempt.

  5. John Rosenberg February 24, 2008 at 1:37 pm | | Reply

    Dom – I hadn’t noticed that. Interesting. But “obsession”? Just because I think the Decline of the West began with — no, was probably caused by — abandoning the serial comma?

    Re the semi-colon, I somewhere saw a Q&A in which the Q was when to use a semi-colon and the A was “after you’ve attended graduate school.” But that was probably from the old days, when people actually learned things in both college and grad school….

  6. vnjagvet February 24, 2008 at 4:00 pm | | Reply

    In the Fall of 1960, I was the only white cadet attending Howard University for advanced ROTC. I had classes there each Mon-Wed and Fri from 8-9am, and drill Thursday from 1-5.

    It had a profound effect on me, because it was the first time I found myself in a minority racial setting.

    I felt many of the same emotions Michelle Obama describes (but in reverse, of course).

    I always have referred to my experience as outsiders’ syndrome.

  7. willowglen February 24, 2008 at 7:59 pm | | Reply

    Actually, I was struck by the personal nature of Michelle Obama’s comments, and intuited quite a bit from them. Let me explain. I am from the Chicago area, and was fortunate enough to be a highly recruited athlete – and while I did not go to Princeton, I considered it, and went to a very similar school. I was from a single mother home (not African American, however), and while in college often felt the sting of being relatively poor amongst quite a bit of wealth. The edge was never really that sharp, though, because I had grades and scores well above the entrance mean and hence at some level felt I really belonged – and my schoolwork – a little inconsistent at times because of the athletic challenges, nonetheless proved it. So when I read Michelle Obama’s comments, it struck me that she was stigmatized by affirmative action – constantly – so in addition to the normal pressures of dealing with the cliques of a wealthy elite school (the kind I experienced a bit) , she was bothered by what others thought of her, because bluntly, she likely was there due to racial preference (arguably her brother was not – he could play basketball fairly well for the Tigers and Pete Carill), and try as she might, never really escaped from the stigma that such programs create. Would she have experienced the same feelings at University of Illinois – ?? Likely not. Would she have become any more or less education at Illinois? No. It is an excellent school. But she likely would not have gained entrance to an elite law school, which is ironic, because it is the elite experience which she now views negatively but no doubt helped her experience a life of privilege.

  8. John Rosenberg February 24, 2008 at 10:06 pm | | Reply

    willowglen – Very good points. It only stands to reason that if you emphasize something, people notice it more, and if you subsidize something you get more of it. Affirmative action both emphasizes race and subsidizes it, and so it is not surprising that the most race-conscious campuses are the ones where affirmative action is both heavily practiced and emphatically celebrated.

  9. Cobra February 25, 2008 at 9:14 am | | Reply

    willowglenn writes:

    >>>”So when I read Michelle Obama’s comments, it struck me that she was stigmatized by affirmative action – constantly – so in addition to the normal pressures of dealing with the cliques of a wealthy elite school (the kind I experienced a bit) , she was bothered by what others thought of her, because bluntly, she likely was there due to racial preference (arguably her brother was not – he could play basketball fairly well for the Tigers and Pete Carill), and try as she might, never really escaped from the stigma that such programs create.”

    Yet, you write here:

    >>>”I was from a single mother home (not African American, however), and while in college often felt the sting of being relatively poor amongst quite a bit of wealth.”

    and you write:

    >>>”So when I read Michelle Obama’s comments, it struck me that she was stigmatized by affirmative action – constantly – so in addition to the normal pressures of dealing with the cliques of a wealthy elite school (the kind I experienced a bit)”

    Isn’t this an indictment of the wealthy elite, and not of any “affirmative action program” since you

    claim to have experienced the same feelings?

    Perhaps this atmosphere at Princeton was exacerbated by groups like The Concerned Alumni at Princeton, (CAP) with folks like Andrew Napolitano and Justice Samuel Alito:

    >>>”From its founding in 1972 till its unlamented demise in 1986, CAP was an organization that at first openly opposed full coeducation and the representative inclusion of minorities at Princeton, and then when those became “settled issues,” continued its opposition to the mere presence of women and minorities at Princeton through tactics ranging from code words to open harassment.

    Simultaneously, and with a blind eye to its perverse irony, CAP campaigned for affirmative action for alumni in the administration and faculty. CAP especially wanted affirmative action in the admissions office for its members’ kids and for those student-athletes with bad grades and board scores.”

    http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/archives/2005/11/22/opinion/13901.shtml

    With groups like THAT running around, why is ANYBODY surprised that a African-American woman at Princeton during that time period would often feel unwelcome?

    –Cobra

  10. Anita February 25, 2008 at 10:13 am | | Reply

    the feelings that michelle had are felt by all minorities. there is nothing that can be done about it, except to move to a place where you are in the majority or to accept it without resentment, which is the best option. living in the US is not like being a christian in a majority muslim country, after all. and michelle did not say she experienced racism, she said she was in another culture, a culture not created by her kind or my kind. black people from the indies or africa and hispanics come here because they want to live in another culture. but at the same time they resent it because it is another culture. there is no solution to this dilemma. the culture of the US is the culture of western europe, which is why it is a liberal country. this is hard for many people to accept. I used to think, still think, we can all be american and that we could reduce racism. but that is not all that people want, they want their culture reflected, they want to live in the culture. they don’t want just to have their own enclave and be tolerated and free and accept that the public culture will reflect that of the majority. that is not so bad, given the culture of the majority in a liberal democracy. the fear is that the more diverse it becomes, the more the US will have these problems. white people like obama because he says I am american, I have the same culture as you, and the fact that i am a different race does not or should not matter. my hope would be to continue along those lines. my hope is that this era is not just the calm before the storm of increased racial, religious, and ethnic conflict.

  11. E February 25, 2008 at 10:48 am | | Reply

    THESE ARE SOME OF THE THE REASONS WHY RACE AND ETHNIC BASED AA NEVER REALLY WORKED.

    http://chronicle.com/free/v54/i25/25b00701.htm?utm_source=cr&utm_medium=en

    The Chronicle of Higher Education

    The Chronicle Review

    From the issue dated February 29, 2008

    Obama, Blackness, and Postethnic America

    The Obama candidacy challenges our notions of identity politics

    QUOTES:

    *If we are now going to recognize that even some black people — people like Obama — are not “like blacks,” how can Mexican-Americans and Cambodian-Americans be “like blacks”? Can the latter be eligible for entitlements that were assigned largely on the basis of a “black model” that suddenly seems not to apply even to all black people? If black people with immigrant backgrounds are less appropriate targets of affirmative-action and “diversity” programs than other black people, a huge issue can no longer be avoided: What claims for special treatment can be made for nonblack populations with an immigrant base? Can the genie of the immigrant/nonimmigrant distinction be put back in the bottle, or are we to generate new, group-specific theoretical justifications for each group? That prospect is an intimidating one, trapping us by our habit of defining disadvantaged groups ethnoracially*

    *The Asian-American section of our color-conscious system is even more anachronistic. There are historical reasons for the relatively weak class position of immigrants from Cambodia and the Philippines, but our category of Asian-American conceals the differences between those groups and those who trace their ancestry to Korea, whose adult immigrants to the United States are overwhelmingly college graduates. Institutions eager to assist the poorest immigrants sometimes do so through the hyper-ethnic step of breaking down the Asian category, enabling them to establish programs for Cambodians but not for Japanese. For example, the undergraduate-admissions forms for the University of California system will soon ask Asian and Pacific-Islander applicants to classify themselves in 23 ethnic categories.*

  12. willowglen February 25, 2008 at 11:55 am | | Reply

    Cobra – as far as an indictment of a “wealthy elite” – I am not sure that “indicting” them accomplishes anything – we will always have our wealthy elite – and the sooner my 18 year old brain realized that I should only worry about what I could reasonably control as opposed to what others may think of me, the better off I was. Again, my own school and its social scene (which is frankly an equal to Princeton – rankings included) was very accepting of me when I became dedicated to schoolwork – the key, really, to succeeding in college anywhere. I was in an honors program of 10 people – and all but me were clearly from wealth with glitzy boarding school experiences and the like – a far cry from my two pairs of jeans and freebie athletic t-shirts – but again, educational excellence and dedication made integrating with them an easy task, even with some anti-jock prejudices in play. And while I am not surprised Michelle Obama felt unwelcome at Princeton in the 1980’s, I am surprised it imprinted so strongly upon her so as to mention it in a speech on her husband’s prospects – by any definition, this woman has lived a privileged life, and I find it both fascinating and disappointing that her affirmative action experience continues to linger so negatively – if anything – despite her challenges – and we all have them – hers is a positive, not a negative, story to tell, yet the story today is a negative one. And if it is a negative one, it does beg the question as to whether we should have an open discussion about the stigmatization factors inherent in an affirmative action program – I don’t think affirmative action benefits with any form of secrecy or areas that are “off-limits” for conversation.

    And ironically, Cobra – and you will have a chuckle at this – I too experienced racism in my athletic career – my events were dominated by black athletes and I was considered a cultural anomaly for competing at a high level in them. Yes, it was a soft form of racism – often with a little joking – but the stereotype threat was always present. I had the luxury of more or less trivializing these comments because I was a good student in my own right and had a future independent of athletics. But in any event, my athletic career was one of joy – especially viewed that way now that I am older, and I certainly don’t associate it with any negative racial experience – despite of course, my minority status.

    I was also consistently saddened by the culture of low expectations when it came to the academic progress of many of my fellow competitors. These fellows by and large were bright and disciplined (as reflected by their arduous athletic dedication), but the schools they attended and the people around them were typically (and there were a few happy exceptions) content to merely have diversity at the school, and in my view there was a lot of academic talent wasted – a lot. This is a cultural factor in which a number of people are complicit – but it again deserves discussion, and find that the typical debates on affirmative action permit us to avoid just the kind of difficult discussion that is needed.

  13. justsaynoto BO February 27, 2008 at 10:59 pm | | Reply

    This stuff always angers me. MO has the chance to go to a great college, very lucky she should feel and grateful. What did she expect? She was there to get the best education, not to have whites kiss her ass! Lots of ppl that don’t fit in have problems, not just blacks..She made a clear, distinct comment…for the first time in her adult life, she feels proud to be an american and whites are oppressors..VERY VERY CLEAR!! The church they attend is very clearly white haters!!! Ppl need to stop defending these very clearly racist ppl…STOP FEELING SORRY FOR THEM!!! BO is going to bankrupt and decay our nation!!!!

  14. Cobra February 28, 2008 at 10:36 am | | Reply

    Willowglenn writes:

    >>>”And ironically, Cobra – and you will have a chuckle at this – I too experienced racism in my athletic career – my events were dominated by black athletes and I was considered a cultural anomaly for competing at a high level in them. Yes, it was a soft form of racism – often with a little joking – but the stereotype threat was always present. I had the luxury of more or less trivializing these comments because I was a good student in my own right and had a future independent of athletics. But in any event, my athletic career was one of joy – especially viewed that way now that I am older, and I certainly don’t associate it with any negative racial experience – despite of course, my minority status.”

    This is interesting. Perhaps we can come to an understanding. This situation you describe seems very similiar to one that I experienced as an undergrad, and even in high school, where I was frequently “the only —–” in class, or on the team, or on the staff. It’s a totally different experience, IMHO, than being in the majority.

    Where we differ, and I can glean this from the tenor of your post, is that your minority status was only temporary, and situational. I would wager that although you were a “cultural anomaly” in the locker room, or the athletic field, that status didn’t extend to the classroom or academic environment.

    I must admit that wealth does play a role, as just like yourself, I didn’t go to college with a golden spoon. I took out student loans. I worked a part time A/V job on campus showing films and videos, and my 1974 Plymouth Valiant wasn’t exactly a head turner on a campus lot filled with German luxary cars.

    Willowglenn writes:

    >>>”And while I am not surprised Michelle Obama felt unwelcome at Princeton in the 1980’s, I am surprised it imprinted so strongly upon her so as to mention it in a speech on her husband’s prospects – by any definition, this woman has lived a privileged life, and I find it both fascinating and disappointing that her affirmative action experience continues to linger so negatively – if anything – despite her challenges – and we all have them – hers is a positive, not a negative, story to tell, yet the story today is a negative one.”

    Define “privileged.” Growing up on the South side of Chicago in a one bedroom apartment for a family of four is not what comes immediately to MY mind when the word “privileged” is mentioned. And if you you’re saying a 23 year old thesis about black isolation at Princeton is “the story TODAY”, well, we’ll just have to disagree on chronology, won’t we?

    justsaynotoBO writes:

    >>>”This stuff always angers me.”

    You’d fit right in on talk radio. Ever heard of Bill Cunningham?

    >>>”MO has the chance to go to a great college, very lucky she should feel and grateful.”

    Is EVERYBODY who attends a “great college” “very lucky?” Should EVERYBODY who attends a “great college” feel “grateful?”

    justsaynotoBO writes:

    >>>”She made a clear, distinct comment…for the first time in her adult life, she feels proud to be an american and whites are oppressors..”

    Are you denying America’s history in regards to African-Americans? Are you claiming that whites have NEVER been oppressors in America? Gee, Just, you must be a NEW reader here at Discriminations. Why don’t you scroll back in the archives. I’m sure some of my older post can enlighten you a bit about why many people don’t believe America has held up its end of the bargain on the pride quotent for ALL of its citizens.

    justsaynotoBO writes:

    >>>”The church they attend is very clearly white haters!!!”

    I bet that’s news to the white members who attend that church.

    justsaynotoBO writes:

    >>>”BO is going to bankrupt and decay our nation!!!!”

    Ummm…you might want to look at the economic conditions the CURRENT President has us in before making predictions on Obama.

    –Cobra

  15. Cobra February 28, 2008 at 10:37 am | | Reply

    Willowglenn writes:

    >>>”And ironically, Cobra – and you will have a chuckle at this – I too experienced racism in my athletic career – my events were dominated by black athletes and I was considered a cultural anomaly for competing at a high level in them. Yes, it was a soft form of racism – often with a little joking – but the stereotype threat was always present. I had the luxury of more or less trivializing these comments because I was a good student in my own right and had a future independent of athletics. But in any event, my athletic career was one of joy – especially viewed that way now that I am older, and I certainly don’t associate it with any negative racial experience – despite of course, my minority status.”

    This is interesting. Perhaps we can come to an understanding. This situation you describe seems very similiar to one that I experienced as an undergrad, and even in high school, where I was frequently “the only —–” in class, or on the team, or on the staff. It’s a totally different experience, IMHO, than being in the majority.

    Where we differ, and I can glean this from the tenor of your post, is that your minority status was only temporary, and situational. I would wager that although you were a “cultural anomaly” in the locker room, or the athletic field, that status didn’t extend to the classroom or academic environment.

    I must admit that wealth does play a role, as just like yourself, I didn’t go to college with a golden spoon. I took out student loans. I worked a part time A/V job on campus showing films and videos, and my 1974 Plymouth Valiant wasn’t exactly a head turner on a campus lot filled with German luxary cars.

    Willowglenn writes:

    >>>”And while I am not surprised Michelle Obama felt unwelcome at Princeton in the 1980’s, I am surprised it imprinted so strongly upon her so as to mention it in a speech on her husband’s prospects – by any definition, this woman has lived a privileged life, and I find it both fascinating and disappointing that her affirmative action experience continues to linger so negatively – if anything – despite her challenges – and we all have them – hers is a positive, not a negative, story to tell, yet the story today is a negative one.”

    Define “privileged.” Growing up on the South side of Chicago in a one bedroom apartment for a family of four is not what comes immediately to MY mind when the word “privileged” is mentioned. And if you you’re saying a 23 year old thesis about black isolation at Princeton is “the story TODAY”, well, we’ll just have to disagree on chronology, won’t we?

    justsaynotoBO writes:

    >>>”This stuff always angers me.”

    You’d fit right in on talk radio. Ever heard of Bill Cunningham?

    >>>”MO has the chance to go to a great college, very lucky she should feel and grateful.”

    Is EVERYBODY who attends a “great college” “very lucky?” Should EVERYBODY who attends a “great college” feel “grateful?”

    justsaynotoBO writes:

    >>>”She made a clear, distinct comment…for the first time in her adult life, she feels proud to be an american and whites are oppressors..”

    Are you denying America’s history in regards to African-Americans? Are you claiming that whites have NEVER been oppressors in America? Gee, Just, you must be a NEW reader here at Discriminations. Why don’t you scroll back in the archives. I’m sure some of my older post can enlighten you a bit about why many people don’t believe America has held up its end of the bargain on the pride quotent for ALL of its citizens.

    justsaynotoBO writes:

    >>>”The church they attend is very clearly white haters!!!”

    I bet that’s news to the white members who attend that church.

    justsaynotoBO writes:

    >>>”BO is going to bankrupt and decay our nation!!!!”

    Ummm…you might want to look at the economic conditions the CURRENT President has us in before making predictions on Obama.

    –Cobra

  16. pat June 23, 2012 at 3:12 pm | | Reply

    To be truthful, all of these theses are embarrassing if a personal narrative is used. My college (Claremont McKenna) prohibited the same. Only majors in ethnic studies and such believe they constitute an academic study. Michelle was rewarded for feeling black and alienated. That is how these programs work. If she said she was glad for the opportunity, loved her mixed sorority, and proud of her 1400 SAT scores (I have no idea what she actually got), her thesis would have been referred back to her.
    My theses were on Equational Notation philosophical instrument and real estate appraisal. This was well within the norm.
    Too many African-American kids take black studies as a major, as Michelle did. It is not a discipline, it is a whine session filled with fruitcakes and football players. Being black guarantees you a B. Frankly it pegs you a dolt from the get go. Barack was at least one step remove. He was a PolySci major. At least those classes were well integrated with unchallenged white kids. There you are guaranteed a B if you profess to be a Progressive and Always vote.

Say What?