The Politico’s has her thesis, (titled “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” written under her maiden name, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson) [Part 1, 2, 3, & 4] and summarizes it in an article about the recent Michelle Obama controversies. I have a response to the summary of her thesis. I haven’t read the whole thesis, and am thus trusting that Mr. Ressner got it right. With that caveat, hoping that I am now protected from embarrassment, let’s carry on with it.
Some of the characteristic sections of the paper follow
“I based my definition on the premise that there is a distinctive black culture very different from white culture.”
“Predominately white universities like Princeton are socially and academically designed to cater to the needs of the white students comprising the bulk of their enrollments.”To illustrate the latter statement, she pointed out that Princeton (at the time) had only five black tenured professors on its faculty, and its “Afro-American studies” program “is one of the smallest and most understaffed departments in the university.” In addition, 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.” (Her findings also stressed that Princeton was “infamous for being racially the most conservative of the Ivy League universities.”)
She quotes the work of sociologists James Conyers and Walter Wallace, who discussed “integration of black official(s) into various aspects of politics” and notes “problems which face these black officials who must persuade the white community that they are above issues of race and that they are representing all people and not just black people,” as opposed to creating “two separate social structures.”
The paper included a research aspect.
To research her thesis, the future Mrs. Obama sent an 18-question survey to a sampling of 400 black Princeton graduates, requesting the respondents define the amount of time and “comfort” level spent interacting with blacks and whites before they attended the school, as well as during and after their University years. Other questions dealt with their individual religious beliefs, living arrangements, careers, role models, economic status, and thoughts about lower class blacks. In addition, those surveyed were asked to choose whether they were more in line with a “separationist and/or pluralist” viewpoint or an “integrationist and/or assimilationist” ideology.Just under 90 alums responded to the questionnaires (for a response rate of approximately 22 percent) and the conclusions were not what she expected. “I hoped that these findings would help me conclude that despite the high degree of identification with whites as a result of the educational and occupational path that black Princeton alumni follow, the alumni would still maintain a certain level of identification with the black community. However, these findings do not support this possibility.”
The idea of academic writing is to let the research determine the conclusions and allow it to support or disprove the hypothesis. The researcher may start with a hypothesis, but has to be ready to abandon the hypothesis if it is disproved.
Now the language gets tricky here because the paper is called a thesis, but I’m going to be using the other meaning of thesis. Let’s start with a few definitions.
- a proposition stated or put forward for consideration, esp. one to be discussed and proved or to be maintained against objections: He vigorously defended his thesis on the causes of war.
- Hegelian dialectic
- an interpretive method, originally used to relate specific entities or events to the absolute idea, in which some assertible proposition (thesis) is necessarily opposed by an equally assertible and apparently contradictory proposition (antithesis), the mutual contradiction being reconciled on a higher level of truth by a third proposition (synthesis).
Michelle Obama’s thesis is that there are two distinct black and white cultures that are very different from each other. The antithesis, apparently unstated in her paper, is that there are not two distinctly different black and white cultures in the US. Her research measured whether black graduates of Princeton perceived themselves in a black culture that was different from white culture. Their majority answer was that they did not. In other words, they saw no evidence in the progression of their lives that the thesis was true. To them, other black graduates of Princeton, there was no meaningful or distinctive difference between black and white culture. If Michelle Obama had been open to her own research findings she would have rewritten the paper to state that she had disproved her original thesis and supported its antithesis instead. Then she would have gone on to describe how this happened. Finally she would have expressed her synthesis, her informed understanding of how things work.
Judging from the summary, what happened instead is that she clung stubbornly to her thesis without ever acknowledging the existence of an antithesis or coming to a synthesis. Unfortunately this is symptomatic of the racial divide in this country, which seems to be an intellectual and perceptual divide between those who think there is no systemic racial divide and those who cling religiously to the belief there is one, rather than a divide based on empirical results. Can an intellectual habit or mis-perception be repaired by changing systems, by changing governments, or does it need to be repaired in the hearts and minds of those who believe in a bogeyman who does not exist?
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