Michelle, Meritocracy and Me

By Theola Labbé-DeBose
Sunday, July 20, 2008

I last visited my alma mater, Princeton University, two years ago to speak on an alumni panel about the future of Iraq. Inside stately McCosh Hall, where I'd taken Constitutional Law more than a decade earlier, I spoke to a mostly white crowd about my experiences as a special Iraq correspondent in 2003, sharing the stage with an impressive bunch of alums, including a soldier who had served several tours in the Middle East and a former CIA station chief.

At the end, one of my fellow panelists turned to me and complimented me on my remarks. "What school did you go to?" he asked.

I was wearing a black shirt and orange linen pants, a dutiful nod to our school colors. It was an alumni panel, I thought. What school did he think I attended?

I've been thinking a lot about this sort of failure to be truly accepted as I've watched Michelle and Barack Obama recently. After all, a white couple with their accomplishments would be another one of those gilded couples that appear on the New York Times's society pages or in Town & Country magazine. Instead, these two earnest meritocrats wound up on the cover of the New Yorker last week in a now notorious fist-bumping caricature, complete with a Black Panther-era 'fro for her and traditional Muslim garb for him.

Seeing that cover made me wince -- and not because I can't take a joke. Like the Obamas and millions of other African Americans who have relied on the promise of American meritocracy, I've made a bet that hard work, study and persistence should be able to vault me past mockery and wariness. But episodes such as that cover make me worry that no amount of pedigree and personal polish will let us entirely escape suspicion, mistrust and jealousy. And I'm hardly alone in this: A New York Times/CBS News poll last week reported that 64 percent of blacks think that whites have a better chance of getting ahead in today's America. It's a painful lesson, especially for us blacks who chose majority-white universities as the means to achieving professional success.

I've given a lot of thought to the intersection of race, education and meritocracy, based on both my personal experience and my job covering schools for The Post. Here are some of the questions I ask myself in private (and I suspect I'm not alone): How can the Obamas list the same schools and the same jobs on their résumés as their white counterparts and still be seen as something to be feared? Isn't education America's Great Equalizer, one of the few ways we have of creating a society based on brains and talent rather than family background or skin color? Or does that promise of uplift and integration only go so far?

These questions hit particularly close to home because, like Michelle Obama, I graduated from Princeton. We're members of the fraternity known as "Black Ivy," sisters and brothers who earned our diplomas at some of the country's most elite universities, places that have educated generations of political families such as the Kennedys and the Bushes. I've gotten very different reactions, from both blacks and whites, to my Ivy League background, from the over-the-top, I'm-impressed tone of voice ("Princeton? Wow!") to barely concealed envy ("Really? How'd you manage that?").

Some blacks have asked why I didn't go to Howard or another historically black college. Some of them must be thinking that about Michelle Obama, too. I can only say that choosing a college wasn't an easy call. At The Post, I've written about young people in the District who are determined to attend a black college. That choice is often driven by black pride or the desire to continue a family legacy, much in the way that attending such schools as Yale and Cornell is passed down in some families. But some of these young African Americans tell me that they also feared not looking like everybody else, or that they were pressured by family and friends not to venture too far from what they know. In some instances, the choice between Harvard and Hampton can be seen as choosing to accept or reject your race. That can make an Ivy League acceptance letter seem more like a burden than a break.

But some of us still decide to go to "white" schools -- because it's a glittering line on a résumé, because we're compelled to try to own something that was once denied us, and because we hope that an Ivy League education may act as a kind of academic armor against misperceptions, assumptions and plain old bigotry. Like every other meritocrat, we're looking for an advantage, and we have particular reason to think that we may need one.

I imagine that some similar factors drove Michelle Obama to apply to Princeton, and I'm guessing that she arrived excited, eager to take in everything the campus had to offer. In her case, that meant a roommate from the South whose parents were so upset by the idea of their daughter living with a real live black girl that they called university officials to protest.

I showed up later than the potential future first lady, in September 1992, and I almost certainly had a less bumpy ride. Even though I'd attended a large, all-black public high school in the Long Island suburbs, I felt pretty comfortable about heading off to lily-white Princeton. (I was more worried about its sleepy suburban New Jersey location than about fitting in.) And my family was determined to launch me as fast and as far as America would permit. My parents had immigrated to the United States from Haiti in 1970 and landed in Brooklyn, where they perfected their English and quickly pursued college degrees from institutions that accommodated new immigrants with young families: New York's community and public colleges. They used education to establish a foothold in the United States, and they never let us forget their living example.

I was a good writer by high school standards, and my warm, savvy college counselor was on a first-name basis with admissions officers across the Ivy League. By the time senior year rolled around, she was confident that I could earn a spot at any college I wanted. Princeton gave me the best financial aid package, and I became a member of the class of 1996.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company