Before the Wisconsin primary in mid-February, Michelle Obama made a remark that Republicans will use to hammer her husband should he win the Democratic nomination. "For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback," she said. Almost immediately, Cindy McCain told reporters, "I have and always will be proud of my country." Both Michelle and her husband tried to explain that what she really meant was that was proud to see so many people turn out to vote. But a lot of voters did and will wonder: how could someone who graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law School and won a job at a high-paying Chicago law firm—who was in some way a beneficiary of affirmative action—sound so alienated from her country?
The remark may have been just a slip under the relentless pressure of campaigning. But it may also reveal an edge of bitterness that Michelle Obama felt as a Princeton senior, when she was just entering her adult life. In the winter of that year, 1985, she wrote her thesis on the subject of "Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community." The thesis is dense with sociological jargon about "dependent variables" and the like, but it also includes some strong personal sentiments. Though she came from a black working-class neighborhood in Chicago, she writes that "my experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my 'blackness' than ever before. I have found that at Princeton no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my White professors and classmates try to be towards 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." She further suggests that even if she assimilates into white society after Princeton, she will "remain on the periphery of society: never becoming a full participant."
Princeton in the early 1980s had been accepting blacks in significant numbers for less than two decades of its more than two-century history (none before World War II). Black students tended to self-segregate, as they did and still do on many campuses. Although, as she notes in the thesis, the university strongly encourages integration, there is still a fair amount of self-segregation at Princeton (where I teach a journalism course). Black students in Michelle's time embraced a "consciousness" attributable to "the injustices and oppressions suffered by this race of people which are not comparable to the experiences of any other race of people through this country's history," she writes.
For her thesis, Michelle surveyed 400 black Princeton alumni (about a fourth of whom responded). She writes that she was surprised—and clearly disappointed—to find that as these alums entered the wider world, in which they overwhelmingly reported great upward social mobility, they ceased to identify primarily with the black community.
Of course, the same happened to her when she entered the real world. Indeed, she somewhat reluctantly anticipates her fate in her thesis. She says that her sense of alienation while at Princeton sharpened her goal to "utilize my resources to benefit the Black community. At the same time, however, it is conceivable that my four years of exposure has instilled within me certain conservative values. For example, as I enter my final year in Princeton, I find myself striving for many of the same goals as my White classmates—acceptance to a prestigious graduate or professional school or a high paying position in a successful corporation. Thus, my goals after Princeton are not as clear as before."
Michelle Obama is by now so well assimilated that she can wear a dress and pearls that are photocopies of the clothes and jewels worn by Jackie Kennedy—and pull it off with grace and panache. At the same time, no one should doubt her blackness (or her husband's, as she has made clear more than once). She has found a way to thrive in any world that she wants. But it is perhaps unsurprising that, for an unguarded moment on the campaign trail, she reflected the alienation she felt at being a lonely working-class black woman at a rich white man's school long ago.