Michelle Obama, the highly accomplished wife of Senator Barack Obama, and I are Princeton classmates. Did you know that?
Me neither, until fairly recently.
I’m quite sure she doesn’t know it even now! She’s got plenty on her mind and, I’m guessing, like most of you doesn’t know where I went to school. And why should she? Unlike yours truly, Mrs. Obama distinguished herself academically, graduating cum laude, and therefore must have spent a lot of time in the library, where I was not. (I graduated sine laude, as I have mentioned before, and spent a lot of time on the radio.)
I am sure we never met at Old Nassau, because in four years there I had personal contact with, I believe, six black people, maybe five, and I remember them pretty distinctly; a few of them were (and are) my friends.
Not that there were so few blacks at Princeton, but in those days blacks mainly segregated themselves at what was then a voluntary-membership residential college called the Princeton Inn College or “PIC.” It was named after a defunct hotel called, well, the Princeton Inn, located adjacent to the campus and which the university had acquired and turned into residences, dining and social space. Over the years PIC became the place for black undergraduates. Perhaps not coincidentally, the space was somewhat isolated from the main part of the campus, though legend had it that the accomodations were superb. In four years, I recall stepping in there only once. I had no business there. I don’t really know if Michelle lived there, and have no way of finding out.
Not long after we graduated — well, shucks, not really “we,” right?; I graduated and also Michelle did — alumnus Steve Forbes gave Princeton a gazillion dollars in honor of his father Malcolm Forbes and they renamed PIC after the old man. A short time later Princeton reshuffled its residential and dining options, made the colleges non-voluntary for underclassmen, and desegregated them.
Not then, however. Michelle Robinson found the Princeton experience to be one that only enhanced her racial identity:
At Princeton, where she followed her brother by two years, she wrote her senior sociology thesis on race, titling it “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community.”
“One of the points I was making, which is a reality for black folks in majority-white environments, is it is a very isolating experience. Period. The question is how do people deal with that isolation,” she says now. “Does it make you cling more to your own community or does it make you try to assimilate more?”
As an adult, working in public, private, and political worlds, Obama emphasizes the nuts and bolts of her undergraduate thinking, while also talking of grander goals that infuse Team Obama’s quest. She issues a challenge, equally to Chicago, to elite universities, and the nation: “It is incumbent on us, whether we are in city government or sitting around the corporate boardroom or in policy or education, to have critical masses of diverse voices at the table.
“At many of the top universities, we still struggle with that. … The question for Princeton is what does the ratio of underrepresented minority students look like today? What about faculty? What about top administrators? Those are the questions we have to continue to ask as a country.”
I actually didn’t quite get the answer to the question posed in the first paragraph — “Does [racial isolation in a mainly white environment] make you cling more to your own community or does it make you try to assimilate more?” But it appears that her answer was the former; as a former roommate says on the Obama website,
Princeton roommate Angela Acree, now a Washington public defender, describes the university in the early 1980s as the kind of place where white students passed by black classmates without a shred of recognition.
“They didn’t mean to be rude,” she said. “Because they didn’t even think they might know a black person, they’d just walk by. All of those things reminded you every single second that you’re black, you’re black, you’re black.”
These are complicated issues, and it’s a mistake to assume that choosing to live in segregated “ghettos” on a country-club-like Ivy League campus made them worse for black students such as Michelle Robinson. Perhaps being fortified by the group, whether among roommates with a similar background or in other contexts, gave them the courage to step onto those manicured grounds.
Like Michelle Robinson, I also came from a public-school, non-college-graduate family background (unlike her I did not have a sibling, Princeton basketball star Craig Robinson, to precede me), and, like Michelle Robinson, I left Princeton feeling far more conspicuously ethnic (Jewish, naturally) and aware of my differentness from the majority there than went I went in. Unlike her, not only did I not do well enough to get into Harvard Law School, but I never felt intimidated by that otherness, and I felt that the door to assimilation was more or less open to me.
This stuff is not so easy to predict. Ironically, it was Michelle who went on to a white-shoe Chicago law firm, then called Sidley & Austin, whereas I left Chicago (where I was in law school at Northwestern) in some part because Chicago firms would not hire me — they smelled the New York on me, I guess — and began an inauspicious big-firm career at what was then one of the city’s most conspicuously Jewish large law firms (Kaye Scholer). I more or less rejected the invitation to assimilate and became a strictly orthodox Jew, largely as a result of my Princeton experience, and while I have had many great opportunities as a lawyer and a citizen I have, because of that choice, operated to some extent on the margins of power and financial success. Politically, I was a conservative and became far more of one as an orthodox Jew.
In contrast, Michelle Obama, the daughter of a Chicago Democratic political operative who at Princeton felt assimilation was impossible, played every card right and became a pillar of the establishment, and is campaigning in the presidential campaign of her husband, one of the most liberal members of the United States Senate.
Neither of us has anything to complain about.