Race, Diversity, and the Education of the First Lady: How Experiences at Harvard Shaped Michelle Obama


In 1988, a group of black students at Harvard Law School compiled a report designed to recognize the growing achievements of black students on campus and share their wisdom with newcomers. The longest essay in the 50-page newsletter was written by a 24-year-old third-year student named Michelle Robinson, who devoted more than 3,000 words to an appeal for greater faculty diversity. “The faculty’s decisions to distrust and ignore non-traditional qualities in choosing and tenuring law professors,” she wrote, “merely reinforce racist and sexist stereotypes.”

Harvard Law was a lofty perch, as privileged as it was competitive. It was no accident that the future Michelle Obama pressed ahead with her application after being waitlisted, or that she set out to make a difference. Raised in a working class Chicago family and educated at Princeton, she had lived the roiling discussions about inequality that were taking place at Harvard and around the country. At the law school by that year, “all the talk and the debates were shifting to race,” said Elena Kagan, a recent graduate and future Supreme Court justice.

During her three years on campus, Michelle represented indigent clients, worked on a law journal focused on African-American perspectives and sought to inspire a greater sense of purpose in her fellow students. Her friends were not surprised. “Michelle always, everything she wrote, the things that she was involved in, the things that she thought about, were in effect reflections on race and gender,” said Charles Ogletree, a Harvard professor and mentor to Michelle. “And how she had to keep the doors open for women and men going forward.”

Writer Scott Turow once said being at Harvard Law School meant “feeling like you were playing an unwinnable game of king of the hill.” For some African-Americans— just 10 percent of the student population—the hill seemed still steeper. Yet friends recall a sense of community and common cause, a kind of constructive embrace, that would shape many black students who enrolled at Harvard in the mid-1980s, particularly those who, like Michelle, became active in campus efforts to diversify the faculty and curriculum.

Being at Harvard with a critical mass of smart, committed black people was “a lifesaver for me,” said Verna Williams, a classmate who would become a close friend.  “It contributed to the formation of my identity as a black professional, as a black woman. Feeling like I have this opportunity, I have this incredible opportunity, and it’s not just about me. It wasn’t just about me when I got here, and it can’t be just about me when I get out of here.” Williams, now a law professor, remembered bull sessions where the friends discussed conundrums of obligation and purpose. “‘What are you going to do for black folks when we get out of here?’ We did think a lot about that, about what it means to be a lawyer, what it means to be a black lawyer.”

Such questions were central to Michelle’s thinking. They connected her looming career decisions with the lessons of her upbringing, the thinking she had done in college and the ongoing national debates about racial and gender unfairness. Her experiences at Harvard, and Princeton before that, illuminate the professional choices she would make during her 20-year professional career in Chicago and the projects she would pursue in the White House.

Click here to continue reading…


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *