Racial Separatism at Princeton

A lot of ink has been spilled this week about Michelle Obama’s recently-released thesis from Princeton University. Most of the attention has focused on the psychodrama of her opening comments, where she relates that as an African-American, she feels that she doesn’t “belong” at Princeton even among “liberal and open-minded” whites, and that she expects white society in the future “will only allow me to remain on the periphery of society.”

That last prediction has been disproved in Obama’s life. She went on from Princeton to graduate from Harvard Law School and grow rich as a law firm associate, corporate board member, and top-level administrator at the University of Chicago. Oh, and her husband may very well be the next president of the United States.

But the most interesting aspect of her thesis is what her findings reveal about her alma mater. Based on surveys of black Princeton alumni, Michelle Obama found that blacks identified more with other blacks at Princeton — and less with whites — than they did either before or after they attended the university. Furthermore, while at Princeton, blacks were more inclined toward racially separatist ideologies.

So what happened at Princeton to make blacks embrace separatism — not only as an ideology, but in their everyday social lives as well? Obama’s thesis offers two main theories: that blacks at Princeton often no longer have their family nearby, to whom they had previously been able to vent their “frustrations” with white society; and that blacks’ needs aren’t met by the university, which caters to the white majority.

As evidence of this last point, Obama points to the low number of tenured black faculty at Princeton, the small number of university-recognized organizations geared specifically toward blacks and other minorities, and the understaffed and undersized nature of the African-American studies program.

In essence, Obama argues that blacks become separatists because there aren’t enough black separatist resources on campus. If blacks could study with more black professors (in other words, with fewer white professors), participate in more organizations without whites, and take more courses that focus on black topics, somehow they’ll become more integrated with the white majority, or so we are to believe.

Many rational observers would argue the precise opposite — that the excessive institutional focus on race on college campuses, and the attendant segregation of blacks into primarily black social organizations and academic programs, is actually the root cause of racial separatism in academia. Yet, even two decades after Obama wrote her thesis, during which time Princeton has dedicated ever increasing resources to “diversity,” her argument is still in vogue among the school’s black student leaders.

In 2003, when Princeton did not appear on Black Enterprise magazine’s list of the top 50 colleges for blacks, the president of Princeton’s Black Student Union (BSU) expressed no surprise, commenting, “Princeton brings diverse students here, but doesn’t really make them part of the campus.” Likewise, in December 2007, after a controversy erupted over photos of a Princeton student made up in something resembling blackface, BSU senior adviser Dwight Draughon remarked, “The point is that as the BSU, we have to be cognizant of the fact that race is ignored on this campus.”

Is it possible that Princeton’s blacks remain marginalized on campus to this day? Does the university still cater to its white majority, as Obama argued? Is race really ignored on campus?

Princeton’s website sheds some light on this issue. A quick perusal of the site reveals that if I were a black student at Princeton, I would have at least a few organizational resources on campus. For example, I could work toward a certificate in African-American studies in the Center for African-American Studies, which recently announced it will double the number of faculty in African-American studies. Or perhaps I’d want to join the Black Student Union, the Akwaaba Princeton African Students Association, or the Princeton Caribbean Connection. Or I might consider assisting the Black History Month Planning Committee.

If I were a man, I could sign up for the Black Men’s Awareness Group. If I were a woman, the Princeton Association of Black Women might be more appropriate. If I were artistically inclined, perhaps I’d look into the Black Arts Company Dance, the Black Arts Company Drama, or the a cappella group Culturally Yours. If I wanted to enhance my job prospects, I could join the Minority Business Association, the National Society of Black Engineers, or the Princeton Minority Association of Pre-Health Students.

If I were interested in the black church tradition, I could worship with Hallelujah. If I were a leader of any of these groups, I might be eligible to join the Black Leaders on Campus organization. If I wanted to further the cause of diversity, I could do so through the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding or the Union of Multiracial and Multicultural Students. If I wanted to assist the Black community, I could join the Princeton Committee of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Or the Community House. Or the Black Student Union Leadership and Mentoring Program. If I had a complaint, perhaps I’d take it to the Diversity Working Group, the Office of Institutional Equity, or one of the school’s minority affairs advisors. And after I graduated, I might consider joining the Association of Black Princeton Alumni.

But what if I weren’t black? Then I might join the Asian-American Students Association. Or the Chicano Caucus. Or Native Americans at Princeton. Or South Asian Students Association; the Arab Society of Princeton (SALAAM); Taiwanese American Students Association; Chinese Students Association; Turkish Students Association; Cuban American Undergraduate Group; German Cultural Organization; Accion Puertorriquena y Amigos; Hong Kong Students Association; Singapore Society; Japanese Students Association; Romanian Students & Scholars; Korean American Students Association; Latino Heritage Month Committee; Persian Society of Princeton; Princeton Gaelic Society; Thai American Student Organization; Ukrainian Alliance; or Southeast Asia Society.

And to what extent do these racial and ethnic-based organizations promote integration, as Obama argued? A comment in 2000 from the president of the Princeton Persian Society at a “Reflections on Diversity” seminar was telling. “Princeton does indeed have a very diverse student body,” he said. “But to make it a diverse community, I think we need to have more intercommunication between the various groups we do have.”

Well, what a surprise. Students divide themselves into balkanized, race-based organizations, and then they’re reluctant to interact with other groups. In her thesis, Obama misidentified these kinds of organizations as a solution to racial separatism rather than a source of it. Perhaps if students joined more organizations based on interests instead of race, they’d end up choosing more of their friends . . . based on interests instead of race.

And has Princeton’s diversity mania resulted in a corresponding degree of ideological diversity? Apparently not. According to the Daily Princetonian, as of January 2008, 92 percent of Princeton University employee donations to 2008 presidential candidates — and 100 percent of faculty donations — have gone to Democrats. The leading recipient, by far, is Barack Obama.

To my knowledge, Michelle Obama has not commented on whether she still feels like she doesn’t belong at Princeton.