President Obama delivered an impassioned call to civic action and responsibility at Howard University’s commencement Saturday, giving an upbeat assessment of the nation’s trajectory but cautioning that there remains “so much more work that needs to be done.”
Obama’s remarks at the historically black college in Washington served as a buttress not just to the inflamed campaign rhetoric about the nation’s health but also to heightened concerns over race relations in many black communities more than seven years into the tenure of the first African American president.
“It may sound like a controversial statement — a hot take — given the current state our political rhetoric and debate, but America is a better place today than it was when I graduated from college,” Obama told the graduates, decked out in blue robes, during the outdoor ceremony. “It also happens to be better off than when I took office, but that’s a longer story.”
Although his speech was not overtly political, the president was intent on making his case, after months of doom and gloom by the candidates to replace him, that the new generation entering the U.S. workforce today has many more advantages than any before it, despite the dramatic technological and social change that has swept the country since he graduated from Columbia University in 1983.
Obama cautioned his audience of mostly young African Americans to remember history at a time when racial strife and mistrust between blacks and local police forces have wracked cities across the country in the wake of high-profile shootings of black residents.
“Race relations are better since I graduated. That’s the truth,” Obama said, though he acknowledged: “No, my election did not create a post-racial society. I don’t know who was propagating that notion, but that was not mine.”
He emphasized that “racism persists, inequality persists. But I wanted the class of 2016 to open your eyes to the moment you are in.”
Howard, with 10,000 students, is coming up on its 150th birthday next year and is often described as a flagship among the nation’s historically black universities. Obama’s speech marked a significant moment for a school founded just after the Civil War and steeped in the long history of the drive for civil rights for African Americans.
The president was kicking off a series of three commencement addresses, which will continue at Rutgers University in New Jersey and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. His appearance at Howard, urging the graduates to embrace the future, came as he is becoming more reflective as his presidency winds down.
Aides insist Obama is not in legacy mode and is focused on pushing his agenda until he hands over the mantle next January. But the president knows it is unlikely that a Republican-controlled Congress will enact significant new legislation in an election year. And he has had little choice but to look back as his record has become campaign fodder and reporters and others ask him to reflect on his tenure.g
The crowd at Howard greeted Obama with a warm embrace. Dressed in a graduation gown, Obama entered to raucous cheers and chants of “four more years!” Actress Cicely Tyson was among the others to receive, as did Obama, an honorary doctorate. In Jan. 2017, Tyson told the crowd, Obama “will walk out of the White House leaving a legacy of character, integrity and resilience — for you, for you for you.”
Obama was presented by former Clinton administration adviser Vernon Jordan, and one of Obama’s closest aides, Valerie Jarrett, whose father graduated from Howard, joined him on stage.
As he has begun to contemplate leaving the White House, Obama has sought to promote civic engagement at a time when U.S. voting participation rates remains low among advanced democracies. And in front a predominantly black audience at Howard, the president chastised those who would not consider voting given the long and difficult civil rights struggle.
“You don’t have to risk your life to cast a ballot,” Obama said. “Someone already did that for you. What’s your excuse?”
The president, in another indirect response to rhetoric from presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, also made a call for empathy and understanding of different cultures and races, including immigrants, refugees, transgendered people and the rural poor.
And he urged the crowd to “be confident in your blackness. There’s no one way to be black. Take it from someone who’s seen both sides of the debate about whether I’m black enough.”
The late musical artist Prince “blew up categories. People didn’t know what Prince was doing and people loved him for it.”