Michelle Obama is someone readers want to know more about. She is a role model for African-American women, but one letter writer called focusing on race "a great disservice." Another underscored how she bridges demographics, adding, "The modern American woman—race notwithstanding—has arrived."
's New First Lady
Thanks to Allison Samuels for her insightful article on Michelle Obama and her role-model status for African-American women ("What Michelle Means to Us," Dec. 1). I am a white, 40-something woman, and Michelle Obama is a role model for my demographic as well. I, too, came from a working-class family in a diverse neighborhood and put myself through college. I've spent years in corporate boardrooms, and I've gotten into trouble now and then for speaking my mind. I, too, put my child first while trying to balance motherhood and career. We may have a different skin color, but I feel a strange, strong kinship with Michelle Obama. The modern American woman—race notwithstanding—has arrived.
I disagree with the way Allison Samuels so bluntly divides the American constituency into being either African-American or "everyone else." The statement is irresponsible not only because it ignores the fact that blacks haven't been the only American minority group for a long time, but also because it's at odds with Barack Obama's inclusive philosophy.
Laguna Niguel, California
While I didn't vote for Barack Obama, I realize Michelle Obama will be a historic and dynamic First Lady. Yet reading "What Michelle Means to Us" made me think, here we go again. What if Michelle were lighter-skinned, Asian or Caucasian (as her husband's mother was)? Would Allison Samuels and her friends be less smitten by Michelle? Do her accomplishments matter more because she's "brown, real brown"? What if the opposite were true? Would she be less of a "girlfriend" or "regular sista"? So, following that logic, Michelle's skin tone makes her black enough and better at understanding and relating to other black people. Really? This topic has been studied, reported and debated ad infinitum. The color of our skin, texture of our hair and features on our faces are out of anyone's control. Why it keeps coming up in articles like this is because we black folks—or African-Americans, if you prefer—keep the stereotypes alive.
As a white South African who became a United States citizen in 1956, I read Allison Samuels's article with a sense of "wait a minute." The African women I grew up with for 25 years did not differentiate themselves according to how brown they were. Before apartheid, so-called Coloreds (the result of the early European settlements in the Cape in the 1600s) were treated better than the Africans, but it had nothing to do with how brown they were; they were simply not considered African. What the blacks needed to do, and finally accomplished, was to get rid of us, the white people, as the ones in authority. The American blacks, however, who had been ripped from their lands, shipped to a foreign country and sold into slavery, had only one way out. That was to become as white as possible so they could eventually "pass" as one of them. I urge Samuels and her "sistas" to revel in the moment. One of yours has finally made it—brown as she is—to the top of the social pyramid. Millions like me across the world are ecstatic that this has happened.
Allison Samuels's profile of Michelle Obama is disappointing. My husband and I worked diligently for the election of the Obama-Biden team. We believe they will lead us to be respected leaders in the world once again. We are not African-American, but we worked side by side with many wonderful people of all ethnic and economic backgrounds. Never once did I hear anyone talk about what either Barack or Michelle was going to do for the black community. I heard of the need to help children of poverty—all children; of the need to assist all young adults who have the desire and will to obtain college education; of the need to create stronger families of all races; to create jobs and provide medical insurance to all Americans. The list goes on and on. Michelle is an extremely capable, educated and spirited woman and will make an incredible First Lady for all Americans. But to focus on her as a "brown" woman or to somehow separate her from the "white" woman status quo does her and us a great disservice. She is so much more than that. Her husband believes in bringing everyone together, not focusing on differences.
Karen King Manrique
s Medvedev Deliver?
"The Medvedev Doctrine," by Owen Matthews and Anna Nemtsova (Dec. 1), tries to make us believe that the Russian president's principal policy initiatives will fall victim to the global economic crisis. I beg to differ. Of course, Russia is hurting like almost every other country, but in general, Dmitry Medvedev (and his predecessor, Vladimir Putin) has clearer and better-defined strategies for the West than either Washington or Brussels has for Russia. Economically, Russia will pull through the present financial crisis, mainly because it doesn't shy away from strong government controls and central planning. Geopolitically, Russia in 2008 is much stronger than it was when the Soviet Union collapsed, and there is every reason to take its occasional threats seriously—especially on the perceived "regional spheres of influence." The Shanghai Cooperation Organization may never become a solid bloc like the old Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, but one would underestimate it only at one's peril. Medvedev has already demonstrated that he can act independently of his mentor, Putin, and he and his politics should be taken seriously. America's President-elect Barack Obama should not underestimate his Russian counterpart.
Karl H. Pagac
Does the new President of Russia have plans to improve the global image of his country as a great economic and political power? Much as Peter the Great attempted a few centuries ago, the new Tsar Medvedev wants to turn Russia into a global power to be reckoned with. His plans are to make Moscow the next financial center of Asia. He intends to forge a security alliance with China to rival America's alliance with NATO. Medvedev's doctrine has a velvet touch when it comes to domestic policies, but it conveys a solidly steel message to the West.
Syed Rashid Ali Shah
"Just What Exactly Does Dmitry Medvedev want?" A more apt opener for your article might have been "What is Dmitry Medvedev permitted to want by Vladimir Putin?" It is plain that the Russian duo is, somewhat successfully, cultivating a good cop/bad cop image meant for consumption both at home and abroad. There is only one person who really rules the roost, though. The idea that Medvedev is like a reborn Mikhail Gorbachev politically may strike a chord with some Russophile romanticists in Western societies, dreaming with eyes wide shut. A wake-up call has been provided by Putin's ambitions to reclaim the presidency as soon as the Russian Constitution permits.
Scots in English Politics
I read with interest your Nov. 17 item "Like Europe's Leaders, Obama Is Both Outsider and Insider" (PERISCOPE) and was amused by the following sentence: "Thus we have British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who spent a decade as chancellor of the exchequer, but remains a Scot in the middle of a political system dominated by the English." You make him sound so alone, when in fact many English people think there are too many Scots involved in English politics, especially when one considers that the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have their own parliaments or assemblies and deal with their own affairs. That is denied to the English, who are obliged to live under the British Parliament, and do not see the possibility of an English Parliament at any time in the future. This system allows Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish members of Parliament to vote on issues affecting the English community but excludes the English from voting on anything other than "British" matters. It would be nice if the English were to enjoy similar privileges.
Anti-Americanism in Turkey
It makes little sense to blame Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for rising anti-Americanism ("The Most Anti-American Nation," Nov. 24). The government's anti-American rhetoric is a reaction to the general trend, and not the cause of it. In fact, of all the major political parties in Turkey, the AKP is widely seen as having the closest ties to Washington. The secular opposition regularly frames the government as a White House stooge, a claim that has long troubled the AKP's base. Soner Cagaptay is mistaken to suggest that Turkish public opinion of the United States is shaped primarily by the government. Traditionally, it has been the other way around. A majority of Turks had positive views of the United States in the mid-1990s, when the openly anti-Western Welfare Party of Necmettin Erbakan was at the helm. More Turks dislike America today because of its highly unpopular policies at Turkey's back door. If the new U.S. president wants to reverse that trend, he should start with turning the page on the Bush administration's disastrous policies in the Middle East.
Since the early 1990s, Turkey has found itself excluded by the Europeans and abandoned by the Americans. It is true that Turks today do not think very highly of the United States, but to say "there is now a tsunami of young Turks ready to die while trying to kill Americans" is pure propaganda with the intent of scaring ill-informed readers. Turkey is indeed a nation with numerous issues, many deeply rooted in history and related to identity, nationalism and secularism. The sensitive Kurdish issue has its origins in socioeconomic marginalization rather than any war on terror. Military operations targeting the Kurdistan Workers' Party will not solve this, but exemplary political leadership and reconciliation among the many subdued ethnicities will. I sincerely hope that President-elect Barack Obama does not listen to Soner Cagaptay's ideas, since that will only harm the American (and Turkish) cause even further. Turkey can and should be an American ally; however, the United States has to earn the trust and friendship of its allies rather than demand it.
Freetown, Sierra Leone
Sharon Begley is great at making complex science easily digestible for laypeople like myself. But in her Dec. 1 column, "When DNA Is Not Destiny," she refers to DNA as something we can modify. She suggests that just because DNA doesn't change, this "doesn't mean that it cannot change" and says that "DNA is not an inert set of blueprints." But people can't change their DNA any more than a skyscraper can change its original design. The "coding" remains perfectly intact whether a person is a fetus, a senior citizen or a 10,000-year-old mummy. It is how our genes express themselves that can change—not the DNA itself. Begley rightfully demonstrates that traits such as personality, intelligence and shyness are not etched in stone. I agree that a timid child can become an extrovert and a selfish person can become altruistic. But this is not because of gene manipulation. To the contrary, one could argue that it was the child's genetic makeup in the first place that gave him the ability to better adapt to his environment by making the most beneficial changes.
Special thanks to Sharon Begley for her incisive column "When DNA Is Not Destiny" (Dec. 1). Her point about the complex interaction between environmental and genetic factors in shaping human behavior is one of the most misunderstood by both the media and the public. Had she had the space, Begley could have filled the magazine with further supporting evidence. I wish to add only that this perspective completely destroys the racist myths concerning the genetic superiority of one group over another.
Thomas F. Pettigrew
Professor of Social Psychology
University of California, Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, California