Much has been said on this blog and off about how the Obamas and their pastor have been treated so well by America and how ungrateful they are to be criticizing American culture for its impact on African Americans. If you accept the notion that our experiences can profoundly impact our perceptions, particularly of the society we live in, then we should assign some significance to this story. Michelle Obama’s Princeton roommate transferred out of her room because she was black. Ms. Obama is in her 40s, so we’re talking about the Carter/Reagan era, not the Jim Crow era.
Here are some excerpts from the article, but really you ought to read the whole thing.
She walked into the historic Nassau Inn that evening and delivered the news to her mother, Alice Brown. “I was horrified,” recalled Brown, who had driven her daughter up from New Orleans. Brown stormed down to the campus housing office and demanded Donnelly be moved to another room.
The reason: One of her roommates was black.
“I told them we weren’t used to living with black people — Catherine is from the South,” Brown said. “They probably thought I was crazy.”
Today both Donnelly, an Atlanta attorney, and Brown, a retired schoolteacher living in the North Carolina mountains, look back at that time with regret. Like many Americans, they’ve built new perceptions of race on top of a foundation cracked by prejudices past — and present. Yet they rarely speak of the subject.
Barack Obama’s run for president changed that. When the Democratic senator from Illinois invited more dialogue on race last month, Donnelly and Brown, both lifetime Republicans, were ready.
But their willingness to talk isn’t a response to the candidate born to a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya. It’s more about Obama’s wife, Michelle.
She’s that roommate from a quarter century ago.
But the “Three R’s” weren’t the only thing Donnelly learned from an early age. There was a fourth one. Her mother and grandmother filled her head with racist stereotypes, portraying African-Americans as prone to crime, uneducated and, at times, people to be feared.
Brown, 71, explains that she was raised to think that way. She recalls hearing her grandfather, a sheriff in the North Carolina mountains, brag about running black visitors out of the county before nightfall. And Brown’s parents held on to the n-word like a family heirloom.
In fact, upon learning that her daughter had a black roommate at Princeton, Brown’s first call was to her own mother. Her suggestion: yank Donnelly out of school.
Donnelly doesn’t think Obama ever picked up on her mother’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering. She remembers nothing but friendly words. Only now, looking back, does she see the wall between them.
Donnelly was surprised to find something familiar – segregation – alive and well on a prestigious campus in the Northeast. The university’s private eating clubs, host to frat-style parties, were largely white. The social scene for many minority students, including Obama, revolved around an activity building called the Third World Center.
When Obama began hanging out with other black students on campus, Donnelly never thought to join them. “Here was a really smart black woman who I found charming, interesting and funny,” Donnelly says with disappointment. “Just by virtue of having different color skin, we weren’t going to be friends.”
In the introduction, Obama wrote that Princeton made her more aware of her “Blackness” than ever before. “No matter how liberal and open-minded some of my White professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don’t belong,” she wrote. “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.”
Donnelly, meanwhile, was struggling with her own identity. She came out that first semester, chopped off her hair and partied with other lesbians on campus. Soon she, too, learned what it feels like to be part of the “other” group, to be seen as a student second.
When Brown heard about Barack Obama’s former pastor — his angry rants against white America — she didn’t like it. But she understood. “If I had been treated the same way blacks have been treated,” she says, “I’d be resentful, too.”
It was Donnelly, however, who understood Obama’s response: “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static.”
Society changed, and Donnelly has seen her mother nudged along with it. Says Brown: “It’s become politically incorrect to talk about black people in a negative way. It’s like smoking.”
Brown quit smoking in 1996. She’s still working on the other.
Brown says she wouldn’t mind if her child or grandchild roomed with a black person today. But she’s far from colorblind. “Where I draw the line is interracial marriage,” Brown says. “That I can’t quite deal with.”
She holds firm to the belief that African-Americans don’t take enough responsibility. “Bill Cosby says the same thing,” she says. “Get off your rear end and work hard and improve yourself.”
Since then, Donnelly has worked and socialized with African-Americans. Yet she hasn’t grown close to any of them. “I’ve just never had an opportunity,” she says, “to have a good friend who was black.”
“You did with Michelle,” Brown snaps.
Donnelly rolls her eyes.
I also like the line about the “Mod Squad.” There’s always been a lot of speculation about Kate Jackson (who was always my favorite Charlie’s Angel).
The photos come from the article.