In 2016, President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address at Howard University, the nation’s most distinguished historically black university. In it, he urged students to be hardworking yet pragmatic in their quest to achieve “justice and equality and freedom” in American life.
Given the current state of our political rhetoric and debate, let me say something that may be controversial, and that is this: America is a better place today than it was when I graduated from college.
America is better. The world is better. And stay with me now — race relations are better since I graduated. That’s the truth. No, my election did not create a post-racial society. I don’t know who was propagating that notion. That was not mine. But the election itself — and the subsequent one — because the first one, folks might have made a mistake. The second one, they knew what they were getting. The election itself was just one indicator of how attitudes had changed.
In my inaugural address, I remarked that just 60 years earlier, my father might not have been served in a D.C. restaurant — at least not certain of them. There were no black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Very few black judges. Shoot, as Larry Wilmore pointed out last week, a lot of folks didn’t even think blacks had the tools to be a quarterback. Today, former Bull Michael Jordan isn’t just the greatest basketball player of all time — he owns the team. When I was graduating, the main black hero on TV was Mr. T. Rap and hip hop were counterculture, underground. Now, Shonda Rhimes owns Thursday night, and Beyoncé runs the world. We’re no longer only entertainers, we’re producers, studio executives. No longer small business owners — we’re CEOs, we’re mayors, representatives, Presidents of the United States.
I am not saying gaps do not persist. Obviously, they do. Racism persists. Inequality persists. Don’t worry — I’m going to get to that. But I wanted to start, Class of 2016, by opening your eyes to the moment that you are in. If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be — what nationality, what gender, what race, whether you’d be rich or poor, gay or straight, what faith you’d be born into — you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago. You wouldn’t choose the fifties, or the sixties, or the seventies. You’d choose right now. If you had to choose a time to be, in the words of Lorraine Hansberry, “young, gifted, and black” in America, you would choose right now.
I tell you all this because it’s important to note progress. Because to deny how far we’ve come would do a disservice to the cause of justice, to the legions of foot soldiers; to not only the incredibly accomplished individuals who have already been mentioned, but your mothers and your dads, and grandparents and great grandparents, who marched and toiled and suffered and overcame to make this day possible. I tell you this not to lull you into complacency, but to spur you into action — because there’s still so much more work to do, so many more miles to travel. And America needs you to gladly, happily take up that work. You all have some work to do. So enjoy the party, because you’re going to be busy.
Now, how you do that, how you meet these challenges, how you bring about change will ultimately be up to you. … [But] I’d like to offer some suggestions for how young leaders like you can fulfill your destiny and shape our collective future — bend it in the direction of justice and equality and freedom.
First of all — and this should not be a problem for this group — be confident in your heritage. … Second, even as we each embrace our own beautiful, unique, and valid versions of our blackness, remember the tie that does bind us as African Americans — and that is our particular awareness of injustice and unfairness and struggle. … Number three: You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. I’ll repeat that. I want you to have passion, but you have to have a strategy. Not just awareness, but action. Not just hashtags, but votes.
You see, change requires more than righteous anger. It requires a program, and it requires organizing. … To bring about structural change, lasting change, awareness is not enough. It requires changes in law, changes in custom. If you care about mass incarceration, let me ask you: How are you pressuring members of Congress to pass the criminal justice reform bill now pending before them? If you care about better policing, do you know who your district attorney is? Do you know who your state’s attorney general is? Do you know the difference? Do you know who appoints the police chief and who writes the police training manual? Find out who they are, what their responsibilities are. Mobilize the community, present them with a plan, work with them to bring about change, hold them accountable if they do not deliver. Passion is vital, but you’ve got to have a strategy.
… You need allies in a democracy. That’s just the way it is. It can be frustrating and it can be slow. But history teaches us that the alternative to democracy is always worse. That’s not just true in this country. It’s not a black or white thing. Go to any country where the give and take of democracy has been repealed by one-party rule, and I will show you a country that does not work.
And democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right. This is hard to explain sometimes. You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want. And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged. And that will lead to more cynicism, and less participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair. And that’s never been the source of our progress. That’s how we cheat ourselves of progress.
… Our democracy gives us a process designed for us to settle our disputes with argument and ideas and votes instead of violence and simple majority rule.
So don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that — no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths. … Let them talk. Let them talk. If you don’t, you just make them a victim, and then they can avoid accountability.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge them. Have the confidence to challenge them, the confidence in the rightness of your position. There will be times when you shouldn’t compromise your core values, your integrity, and you will have the responsibility to speak up in the face of injustice. But listen. Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas.
[Source: Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at Howard University Commencement Ceremony,” May 7, 2016. Available online via The White House (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/05/07/remarks-president-howard-university-commencement-ceremony).]