Oct 30, 2012 No Comments ›› Pat Dollard
Excerpted from THE BLAZE: Princeton, 1984.
Michelle Obama attends and promotes a “Black Solidarity” event for guest lecturer Manning Marable, who was, according to Cornel West, probably “the best known black Marxist in the country.” The event is the work of the Third World Center (TWC), a campus group whose board membership is exclusively reserved for minorities.
Michelle Obama (Robinson at the time) was one of those 19 board members and a leader of the organization. She helped to dispense what was, in today’s dollars, a $30,000 budget. Of the 19 elected positions on the board, there were two reserved spots for each of the five ethnic groups TWC purported to represent: Asian, Black, Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Native American.
The board also had representatives from the various minority organizations on campus, including Accion Puertorriquena y Amigos, the Asian-American Students Association, the Black Graduate Caucus, and the Chicano Caucus, among others. She also fundraised for the TWC by participating in its African-themed fashion show and fundraisers (see picture here). It was a controversial and racially-charged organization. And in looking at the group’s racial focus before and during Michelle’s tenure, we get a glimpse of her priorities while at Princeton.
“White Students on This Campus Are Racist”
If ever there was an example of the TWC governing board’s obsession with race, an editorial from October 21, 1981 is it. The members took great offense to an op-ed titled “Rebuilding Race Relations,” calling the article “racist, offensive, and inaccurate” for daring to question the group’s true commitment and to present a thesis on race relations counter to its own.
“The word RE-building implies that race relations once existed and, for some mysterious reasons, fell apart … ,” the board wrote in a scathing letter to the editor. “We, on the other hand, believe that race relations have ?never? been and still are not at a satisfactory level. We are not RE-building. We cannot RE-build something that never existed in the first place.” “Don’t hide behind excuses such as a lack of effort [to integrate with the Princeton campus] on our part,” the revealing letter added.“The bottom line is that white students on this campus are racist, but they may not realize it.” [Emphasis added]
Princeton itself, however, was concerned about the self-segregation by black students and proposed reforms to counter it, including no longer permitting black students to all room together in one dorm and integrating black freshmen into the general student body. The TWC strenuously opposed all of these reforms, arguing that integration of non-white students would harm the “support system” available to them, especially blacks. (Julie Newton, “TWC criticizes CURL plan: Minority strife would worsen,” The Daily Princetonian, October 21, 1981).
While Michelle was not a part of the board in 1981, as a board member of the Third World Center starting on April 7, 1983 she joined in a different racially-charged statement reproaching the college for not doing enough to hire “Latino administrators.” In a letter a few weeks later, the TWC attacked Princeton’s administration for not replacing Hector Delgado, a minority dean of students.
“This search needs to produce another experienced individual who is of minority background, preferably Latino, and who will be responsive to the concerns of Third World Center as well as the student body at large,” the TWC’s governing board wrote.
Others on campus took notice of the group’s calls and expressed concern.
For example, Fred Foote — the editor of Prospect magazine, a conservative monthly publication — criticized the TWC and Delgado for their obsessive focus on race.
“[Delgado’s] penchant for drawing campus issues along racial lines—a penchant shared by the TWC and The Daily Princetonian—is the chief cause of racial strife on campus,” he wrote.
A Culture of Racial Focus
The TWC’s racialism extended beyond who could become an officer in the group . Although the TWC served a number of roles on campus and was a hangout spot for minorities, its focus was mostly political. Its various constitutions make this clear. To quote the 1983 version:
The term ‘Third World’ implies[,] for us, those nations who have fallen victim to the oppression and exploitation of the world economic order. This includes the peoples of color of the United States, as they too have been victims of a brutal and racist economic structure which exploited and still exploits the labor of such groups as Asians, Blacks, and Chicanos, and invaded and still occupies the homelands of such groups as the Puerto Ricans, American Indians, and native Hawaiian people. We therefore find it necessary to reeducate ourselves to the various forms of exploitation and oppression. We must strive to understand more than just the basics of human rights. We must seek to understand the historical roots and contemporary ramifications of racism if Third World people are to liberate themselves from the economic and social chains they find themselves in.
It adds in another version:
“The Center is not only a social facility, it has become a place of educational and cultural activity in conjunction with its political purpose. Because the term Third World is inherently political, it is necessary that we be active in political work and in educating ourselves to the various forms of exploitation and oppression. We must strive to understand more than just the basics of human rights. We must look for the underlying conditions faced by our peoples and seek alternative modes of economic and political structures so that Third World peoples and their nations will no longer be agents and pawns of the two superpowers (the United States and Russia.)”
The Center also opposed the “ruling class values and culture that characterizes Princeton University.”
In November 1984, TWC’s board demanded that non-white students should have the right to bar whites from their meetings on campus. They also demanded minorities-only meetings with the deans. (John Hurley, “Black students, university debate closed meeting policy,” The Daily Princetonian, November 29, 1984). The ban was frankly unnecessary, since whites were made to feel unwelcome at the meetings if they were invited at all, but the TWC continued to press for it, arguing, too, that blacks ought to be able to bar whites from attending events aimed at discussion of “sensitive” racial issues.
“The administration, by denying us these [blacks-only] meetings, is saying that we don’t have specific needs that have to be addressed this way,” David Jackson, ’87, a fellow TWC member, told the Daily Princetonian after the university officials finally rejected its proposal to hold racially limited meetings.
But despite the radical and racialist character of the TWC, Michelle Robinson was an active participant and may have been attracted by that very radicalism.
“The Third World Center was our life,” Angela Acree, her best friend at Princeton, told The Boston Globe in June 2008. “We hung out there, we partied there, we studied there [in Liberation Hall].”
“Not a day went by that I did not see Michelle at the Center,” Czerni Brasuelle, TWC’s director at the time, told the Daily Princetonian in its November 5, 2008 issue.
Brasuelle, director of the Third World Center from 1981 to 1983 and a friend and mentor to Michelle during and after Princeton, was herself no stranger to controversy. According to a Daily Princetonian columnist, she described the campus climate as “racist” and worried about “a lack of understanding of Third World [non-white] people.” (Barton Gellman, “Rebuilding Race Relations,” Daily Princetonian, October 16, 1981). In May 1983, Brasuelle joined calls for a minority dean, writing that “[Princeton] cannot afford to ignore our commitment to Affirmative Action with token representation of Latinos on the administrative level.” Michelle’s mentor left Princeton for a position as vice president of academic affairs at Kentucky State University at the end of 1983.
In April 1983, the Third World Center held an emergency meeting where it approved a draft statement, prepared jointly with the student government’s race relations committee, calling for racial preferences and set-asides in the hiring of administrators.
“There should be someone representing Third World views in the administration,” explained Raghu Murthy ,’85, who sat on the board with Michelle. (Daily Princetonian, May 6, 1983). The TWC wanted one of its board members to be given a vote and a voice in the administrative hiring process. (Daily Princetonian, September 20, 1983). Ultimately, Dean of Students Eugene Lowe caved, agreeing he would “make an effort to identify some candidates who are of Latino background.” (Daily Princetonian, September 20, 1983.)
For the TWC, this departure set off alarm bells because it meant someone more moderate might be appointed to run the Center. TWC members demanded that they be given representation on its board. Michelle Robinson joined a statement saying that students associated with the center be given a role in picking its director and was quoted in the Daily Princetonian as demanding that the dean place more TWC members on the search committee.
“We Saw a Need to Address Issues of Race Relations on a Continuing Basis…”
As a member of the Princeton student government’s standing committee on race relations, Michelle signed another provocative statement, recounting the history of the TWC and offering insight into its focus.
“We saw a need to address issues of race relations on a continuing basis … .We saw the need to realize that situations, issues, and problems involving race relations occur everyday.” She even helped to “organize a rally to raise the question of [minority] representation in the Dean of Students Office,” according to the statement.
The TWC bemoaned the “institutional racism” on campus and pushed for more minority students. A frequent participant in TWC events was assistant dean Delgado, who claimed that Princeton was excluding minorities from admissions or hiring on campus, presumably because of its racism.
“Sometimes the institution gives criteria which exclude certain people,” Delgado told the Daily Princetonian in December 1982 at one of the numerous TWC forums on racism. “There are only five black tenured faculty, no Chicanos, no Puerto Ricans.” (Michelle Robinson would go on to make a similar argument as a student at Harvard Law School and in her thesis.)