You may have heard that Michelle Obama’s best-selling book “Becoming” is a well-written and fascinating story of a working-class Chicago girl who overcame obstacles to make it to the White House.
I’m not here to say otherwise — I unabashedly loved this book.
But I did love it critically. Rest assured, the criticism isn’t for Michelle Obama.
It’s for anyone who reads this remarkable story and walks away believing the dreaded cliché about every person of color who broke barriers: Skin pigment, gender and race or ethnicity won’t hamper those who work hard enough and persevere. And they’ll live happily ever after.
Clearly, the former first lady is now living as close to a fairy tale life as any of us can imagine. And there’s no question that she worked hard, sacrificed and endured after, for instance, her high school guidance counselor said she didn’t think the girl then known as Michelle Robinson was “Princeton material.”
She certainly persevered after, having graduated from Princeton, she eventually realized that being a lawyer was something she’d achieved to make others proud and not because the law inspired her or gave her purpose in life.
But the portion of America that worries about how our young people of modest means, our young immigrants and our children of color will ever close the academic, earnings and life-expectancy gaps with their white peers should not overlook the many privileges that Michelle Robinson enjoyed.
For one, though the Robinsons were considered working-class, they lived with their great-aunt and uncle in a home that eventually became her mother and father’s. This allowed the Robinsons to, as Michelle put it, make the kids the family’s sole focus.
Both her parents worked and, by the time Michelle was in high school, had been “married nearly 20 years. Neither one of them had ever vacationed in Europe. They never took beach trips or went out to dinner. ... We were their investment, me and Craig. Everything went into us,” Michelle wrote.
Plus, the Robinson kids had all kinds of social capital.
Like preternaturally excellent parents who believed in letting their children manage their own affairs even when they were young. And access to piano lessons and recitals in downtown Chicago auditoriums given by their great-aunt — who, incredibly, long ago sued Northwestern University for discrimination after having been denied a spot in the women’s dorm. There were also several other relatives who had the experience of working in “respectable if not well-paying” professions.
There were trips to visit family in the South as well as to see relatives who had managed to move to the majority-white, well-heeled suburbs of Chicago.
There was great music, laughter, singing and — most important of all — the comfort of intact, nuclear families who lived in stable, safe neighborhoods with similar families, allowing Michelle and Craig to enjoy being themselves in a cocoon of well-cared-for peers. One of Michelle’s closest childhood friends was the daughter of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, resulting in unparalleled insight into one of the nation’s most influential black leaders.
Sure, Michelle remembers a classmate who once asked her, “How come you talk like a white girl?” But one doesn’t get the idea the Robinson children were oddballs among their peers for aspiring to attend college.
Absolutely none of these details detracts from the indefatigable effort and discipline Michelle dedicated to everything from changing careers to become a hospital executive, realizing the dream of having children, and then managing a family in the insanity that is Chicago, and eventually, national politics.
However, her story isn’t as simplistic as the “poor South Side girl makes good” narrative you’re likely to see from people who want her to be a perfect role model, or “proof” of the possibility of success for other young people of color.
As the Chicago teacher and education writer Ray Salazar put it in a recent essay on the Latino Rebels website, “My disappointment with Michelle Obama’s autobiography (is that) the path she documents cannot be followed in today’s world. Young people can and should find inspiration in her story. ... But the truth is the world that created Michelle Obama does not exist today.”
She is a singular emblem of towering success, but her path to it isn’t scalable right now.
That would require black and Latino students to have abundant stable and safe neighborhoods with plentiful jobs for their parents, good public schools and tightly knit communities with the resources and savvy to propel them.
Until that happens, no one should reasonably expect any young person without Robinson-level infrastructure to attain spectacular Obama-level results.