President Obama delivered a commencement address on May 7 at Howard University, one of the nation’s premier historically black colleges.
In his speech, sprinkling jokes throughout, Obama encouraged the graduates to be proud of their achievement and hopeful about their future, but he also offered them some of his wisdom about how to change the world.
“Let me begin with what may sound like a controversial statement — a hot take,” he said.
“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.”
There is no time better than this one to be “young, gifted, and black,” Obama said, quoting the playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Nevertheless, “you’ve got plenty of work to do,” he told the class of 2016.
The Commander in Chief became "Organizer in Chief," as he laid out the necessary ingredients for bringing about change.
“You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy,” he said. “Not just hashtags, but votes.”
Lamenting low voter turnout in the U.S., Obama pointed out that in the 2014 midterm elections, youth turnout was less than 20 percent, and only about two in five black people voted.
“You don’t think that made a difference in terms of the Congress I’ve got to deal with?” Obama asked pointedly.
“And then people are wondering, well, how come Obama hasn’t gotten this done? How come he didn’t get that done?”
But it’s not just voting and speaking out that is required for change, the president pointed out.
“It requires listening, as well,” he said. “In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise.”
He named Brittany Packnett, of Black Lives Matter and Campaign Zero prominence, as an example of someone who “rolled up her sleeves” and engaged in the complicated work of the president’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. She could have “refused to participate out of some sense of ideological purity,” but then, her “great ideas would have just remained ideas.”
The theme of empathy, so necessary for the difficult work of listening and compromise, played a prominent role in Obama’s speech. Even while calling for African Americans to remember the history that binds them together, he urged those in attendance:
“We must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling, not just black folks who are struggling — the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender person, and yes, the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change, and feels powerless to stop it. You got to get in his head, too.”