During an election year, a potential candidate’s perceived flaws and strengths are put on display for all to see. The public scrutiny is not limited to the candidate alone, but is broadened to include the people closest to the contenders. It reinforces the meaning of the old proverb, “Birds of a Feather Flock Together.”
Throughout this long election campaign, many are interested in the types of birds that flock with our candidates. Hilary is constantly haunted by the professional and personal misdeeds of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, while Barack was called to justify his friendship and respect for militant preacher Jeremiah Wright until that very friendship was fractured under the pressure.
The search for controversy has no statute of limitations as even the bachelor’s thesis of Michelle Obama, which examines the changing attitudes of middle and upper class blacks in Ivy League white academia toward lower class blacks and the black community during various stages of academic attendance, was a target for ridicule and judgment. Understanding the political climate and the inevitable existence of dirt digging and mud slinging, Michelle attempted to reduce the potential impact of her racial research from 23 years ago. It is not unreasonable to investigate to whom the presidential candidates are coupled and Michelle knew her words could have an impact on her husband’s campaign. It is an example of another old saying, “you are judged by the company you keep”. As a result, it has been reported that she requested her thesis be removed from the Princeton library until after the election in November 2008.
In a respected move, the Obama campaign quickly released the thesis upon request of media outlets. Some judged this act as Obama’s attempt to capitalize on the the controversy surrounding the dated words of his wife, the very words she was trying to keep private for the benefit of his campaign.
Upon reading her thesis firsthand, I had trouble detecting the controversy. It became apparent that the point of contention rested in what the thesis might say instead of what it actually said, which explains why the Obama campaign released it. The speculation is always worse than the reality. Once it was made available, some of the silliest remarks were made regarding its validity and its ability to convey Michelle’s findings. I read comments like, “well there are no white history classes” and “that thesis was full of grammatical errors”. I found humor in these meaningless judgments. My first thought was, there’s no white history classes because nearly all history is white history. It makes sense that at a predominantly white academic institution of the 1980s the majority of classes, clubs, and activities would spotlight white culture, placing all other cultures in the dark.
What Michelle’s thesis really focused on is the attitudes of middle class and upper middle class blacks toward the black community and the white community prior to, during and after attending a predominantly white affluent Ivy League institution like Princeton. The sample was compiled of 400 names of black Princeton alumni collected by choosing every fourth name in a list of 1200 obtained from Princeton’s Alumni office. A survey of 18 questions yielded a 22% response rate or 89 respondents, which consisted of 60% males and 40% females. Ms. Obama delved into the lifestyles and the perceptions of these undergraduate alumni, considering their dating and religious practices, their friendships, as well as their comfort level with whites and other blacks. Their economic and educational backgrounds prior to admission to Princeton was also considered. She wanted to discover the following:
· Attitudes of black undergraduate alumni and the intentions between blacks and whites.
· The Ivy League Black’s feeling of obligation to help lower class blacks
· Interaction with white students on campus
· How experience at Princeton changed personal values
· How the obligation to give back to the black community was affected by social practices while attending Princeton
Her research revealed that a black alumni’s loyalty to the black community had a lot to do with whether integration and assimilation took place while attending Princeton. Those from lower class families and neighborhoods felt more comfortable with other blacks and were more likely to participate in separatism, thereby not interacting with whites by choice. As far as giving back to the black community, Michelle determined that benefiting a given group had a lot to do with the time invested in getting to know that group. Those who integrated and assimilated into white culture were more likely to give back to the community of whites and blacks as a whole rather than focus on black society specifically.
Other theories such as the need to band together within the black culture before integrating into white society were discussed. In the introduction, Michelle wrote about her experience as being on the fringes of Princeton academic society but not being welcomed to embrace it.
This study analyzed the affects of the white upper middle class academic experience on blacks and how that experience shaped their evolving views of black culture, the black community and their obligation to contribute to that facet of society during various stages of the academic experience. In the end, Ms. Obama had to derive several new hypothesis models that spoke to the general social climate between blacks and whites which were in effect regardless of economic class.
Finally, social research studies such as this are designed to encourage analysis of society, it’s effectiveness and one’s place in the evolving entity that is our environment. As with any research study, Ms. Obama posed a question that spoke to her own experiences and curiosities while attending a upper middle class Ivy League school as a black woman in the 1980’s and determined based on the responses that her hypothesis had to be adjusted as the outcome was not solely based on each person’s social history or economic status. In fact, Michele Obama’s thesis and the social scrutiny of the presidential candidates demonstrates how a person’s character and value go beyond those in their current inner circle by taking into account their past and present social environments.
Cultural loyalty is affected by the overall social climate of the period. Much is the same in our current political climate, as each candidate’s potential to successfully carry the presidency must be analyzed by their intelligence, a commitment to their values and their ability to convey and personify a sincere message of hope for all those involved both within the United States and around the world.