Since he burst onto the national scene in 2004 at the Democratic convention, President Obama has probably had to give more speeches about race than he expected – at least three major ones. Now, in his final year as the first black president of the United States, he chose to give one more. On May 7, he was the 2016 commencement speaker at Howard University, the nation’s most prominent historically black university.
As in his previous talks on race relations, Mr. Obama emphasized the continuing need to tackle prejudice and counter lingering injustices from slavery and Jim Crow laws. But he opened with a theme that is common in his earlier talks: the need to appreciate the progress already made in order to sustain further change.
To frame his point, he chose to highlight the many changes since he graduated from college in 1983. Former basketball great Michael Jordan, for example, now owns the team he played on. “America is better. The world is better. And stay with me now – race relations are better since I graduated. That’s the truth,” Obama said.
Obama said the current generation is better positioned than any previous generation to “flip the script” on the remaining challenges of race and injustice. The task needs more than “righteous anger” or organization and a strategy. It is important to note the service and sacrifice made in years past by “the legions of foot soldiers,” he said, in order to spur today’s African-Americans into action.
“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,” he said.
In another speech on race last year, he refuted a report by his own Department of Justice that stated recent police shootings of blacks showed not much change in race relations. He said denying progress in race relations would rob people of their capacity and responsibility to do what they can do to make America better.
In his first major speech on race, given in 2007 and also at Howard University, he likened today’s black Americans to Joshua taking over from Moses in seeking the Promised Land. He told his audience that they stand “on the shoulders of many Moses.”
Obama’s legacy on improving race relations is mixed, yet he will leave office with what may be his most motivating words: “Remember how far we’ve come.”
Or as he told the class of 2016: Open your eyes to “the moment that you are in.”