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Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan May 30, 2008

E-mail takes college work out of context

A chain e-mail about Michelle Obama, the wife of presidential candidate Barack Obama, purports to be excerpts from a senior thesis she wrote while at Princeton University.

It's true that Obama, then Michelle Robinson, attended Princeton and wrote a thesis 23 years ago titled "Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community."

The e-mail takes a few actual sentences out of context, and fabricates a few quotes that don't exist in her work.

The e-mail begins:

"In her senior thesis at Princeton, Michele Obama, the wife of Barack Obama stated that America was a nation founded on 'crime and hatred.' Moreover, she stated that whites in America were 'ineradicably racist.' The 1985 thesis, titled 'Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community' was written under her maiden name, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson."

But nowhere in the thesis does Obama write the words "crime and hatred" or that whites are "ineradicably racist." The e-mail does get the thesis title, Obama's maiden name, and the year correct. It also uses real quotations from the thesis, though a few are taken out of context.

For this fact check, we'll look at the following statement the e-mail says is from Obama's thesis:

"There was no doubt in my mind that as a member of the black community, I am obligated to this community and will utilize all of my present and future resources to benefit the black community first and foremost. "

The e-mail then asks, "What is Michelle Obama planning to do with her future resources if she's first lady that will elevate black over white in America?"

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In Obama's thesis, she sought to quantify how the attitudes of black Princeton alumni changed after graduation in regard to race relations and social change. Obama was especially interested in the attitudes of Princeton alumni in regard to improving the lives of lower-income blacks.

To document the change in attitudes, Obama devised an 18-question survey and mailed it to black alumni. Her thesis is a discussion of her methodology and an analysis of the results. It contains a limited amount of personal opinion in the introduction, including the sentence above. Here is a fuller exerpt:

"Earlier in my college career, there was no doubt in my mind that as a member of the Black community I was somehow obligated to this community and would utilize all of my present and future resources to benefit this community first and foremost. 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 toward 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."

But Obama writes a few paragraphs later that her earlier assumptions were changing, too:

"At the same time, however, it is conceivable that my four years of exposure to a predominately White, Ivy League University has instilled within me certain conservative values. For example, as I enter my final year at 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."

Certainly, Obama's thesis is race-conscious. But the statement used in the e-mail doesn't include the context, that Obama's desire to help the black community "first and foremost" was leavened by later "conservative" values such as attending school or getting a well-paying job.

Perhaps at this point it's best to point to some outside commentary. When the thesis became public in February 2008, it was a topic on the Fox News show Hannity & Colmes . Former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, a noted conservative and a commentator for the network, said on the show he thought her thesis work wasn't relevant to the current campaign.

"First off, a spouse's personal life is out of bounds, period, end of discussion," Santorum said. "This is something that she did at an age when you write some pretty strange stuff sometimes. I hope they don't pull up my college thesis papers."

The quote about Obama wanting to help the black community "first and foremost" is an actual quote from her senior thesis. But it's not given the proper context. And nowhere in her thesis does she say the black community should be elevated over the white community, as the person who wrote the e-mail claims. On these grounds, we rate the statement Half True.

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