*”I feel important now. Got a degree from Howard,” said President Obama, kicking off his address to the Class of 2016 at Howard University’s commencement ceremony on Saturday in Washington.
The president covered a wide range of topics, beginning with how we are NOT in a post-racial society. “I don’t know who was propagating that notion” he said to laughter. “That was not mine.”
He did however, spent the entire beginning of the speech declaring that race relations are better now than when he was the age of the graduates – name dropping Shonda Rhimes, Larry Wilmore and Beyonce in the process:
In my inaugural address, I remarked that just 60 years earlier, my father might not have been served in a D.C. restaurant. …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. (Laughter.) Rap and hip hop were counterculture, underground. Now, Shonda Rhimes owns Thursday night, and Beyoncé runs the world. (Laughter.) 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. (Applause.)
The overall aim of his speech was to offer “suggestions for how young leaders like you can fulfill your destiny and shape our collective future.”
He urged Howard grads to embrace the diversity of their history:
“Be confident in your heritage. Be confident in your blackness,” he told the graduates. “There’s no one way to be black. Take it from somebody who’s seen both sides of the debate about whether I’m black enough.”
…And because of those who’ve come before you, you have models to follow. You can work for a company, or start your own. You can go into politics, or run an organization that holds politicians accountable. You can write a book that wins the National Book Award, or you can write the new run of “Black Panther.” Or, like one of your alumni, Ta-Nehisi Coates, you can go ahead and just do both. You can create your own style, set your own standard of beauty, embrace your own sexuality. Think about an icon we just lost — Prince. He blew up categories. People didn’t know what Prince was doing. (Laughter.) And folks loved him for it.
He had what appeared to be a message for the Black Lives Matter movement:
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.
…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? (Applause.) 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.
Obama got testy when stressing the importance of voting, particularly among the Millennials who stayed home in large numbers in the 2014 midterms:
You don’t think that made a difference in terms of the Congress I’ve got to deal with? And then people are wondering, well, how come Obama hasn’t gotten this done? How come he didn’t get that done? You don’t think that made a difference? What would have happened if you had turned out at 50, 60, 70 percent, all across this country?
Watch President Obama’s full speech at Howard below: