Response to a Summary of Michelle Obama’s thesis

The Politico’s Jeffrey Ressner 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.”

and

“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.”)

and

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.”

Response

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.

the·sis
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?

h/t: Ace of Spades. Also on it, memeorandum, Captain’s Quarters, The Corner, Pat Dollard, Atlas Shrugs, Eunomia, Wonkette and JammieWearingFool

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3 responses to “Response to a Summary of Michelle Obama’s thesis

  1. Thank you for the trackback and the link. I have added you to my blogroll.

  2. Lee Carey writes at the American Thinker:

    The spiritual role that Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ (UCC) and its just-retired pastor Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright have played in the lives of Barack and Michelle Obama is well-established, as is the Africentric theology that is the cornerstone of the church’s self-proclaimed identity.

    One largely unexamined element of that Africentric theology, though, is the pivotal role that black liberation theologian Dr. James H. Cone, Professor of Systematic Theology, Union Theological Seminary (NYC), and his 1969 book Black Theology & Black Power, have played in the life of that faith community. […]

    The Trinity UCC website was updated early this year. Before that, Cone’s book was singled out as required reading for Trinity parishioners who wished to more thoroughly understand the church’s theology and mission. […]

    Cone’s groundbreaking 1969 book Black Theology and Black Power announced: “The time has come for white America to be silent and listen to black people. . . . All white men are responsible for white oppression. . . . Theologically, Malcolm X was not far wrong when he called the white man ‘the devil.’. . . Any advice from whites to blacks on how to deal with white oppression is automatically under suspicion as a clever device to further enslavement.” Contending that the structures of a still-racist society need to be dismantled, Cone is impatient with claims that the race situation in America has improved. In a 2004 essay he wrote, “Black suffering is getting worse, not better. . . . White supremacy is so clever and evasive that we can hardly name it. It claims not to exist, even though black people are dying daily from its poison” (in Living Stones in the Household of God).” […]

    Michelle Obama’s recent statement about pride-in-country is thoroughly consistent with both the Africentric theology of Trinity UCC and with the black theology of their spiritual mentor’s (Wright’s) mentor (Cone). Her efforts to explain what she meant by her statement have, so far, been vague. The less she says, the better it will be for her husband’s campaign. The more she elaborates on what she meant, the more damage she could do to his candidacy.

    Carey extrapolates on the conclusions that would result from Cone’s beliefs.

    – The fall of the Berlin Wall was a seminal event in the battle between two white racist, oppressive political-economic systems. What’s to be proud of there?

    – The fall of the USSR was merely the victory of one racist system that has long exploited poor, non-white, Third World countries with economic colonialism over another system similarly guilty. What’s to be proud of in that victory? Both brought havoc and death upon the surrogate countries when their Cold War battles turned hot.

    – The liberation of Kuwait, too, falls into the category of white supremacist politicians exercising U.S. military power over an oil-rich region of the world. What’s to be proud of there?

    – And, the idea that her education should be a matter of pride could be heard as having a condescending tone that suggests she should be proud because she, a black woman, earned degrees generally reserved for whites.

    One definition of racism is believing that race itself, that pseudo scientific distinction invented by eugenicists and 19th century progressives, is is a true and useful distinction. This belief is certainly a pre-requisite for racism.

    Not good.

    Whatever happened to MLK and “the content of their character”?

  3. Denying that race is not an issue in these elections is as ludicrous as calling Orin Hatch a socialist.
    In spite of the Hegelian dialectics mentioned and there not being an antitheses her summary is selfevident and only a nitwit would misconstrue her summary:
    “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.”