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Obama Speaks At Howard University On Voting, Change, And Blackness

The president's "hot take": "America is a better place today than it was when I graduated from college."

Posted on May 7, 2016, at 2:44 p.m. ET

Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

Progressives should be more aware of the hard-won gains that have re-shaped the United States in recent decades, President Barack Obama said Saturday, adding that remedying remaining social ills will require more than "righteous anger."

In a lengthy commencement address to graduating students at Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, D.C., Obama expounded on race relations, the concept of blackness, and the tools needed to effect change.

"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," the president said, "you wouldn't choose 100 years ago. You wouldn't choose the '50s or the '60s or the '70s. You'd choose right now."

"America is a better place today than it was when I graduated from college," Obama said, noting his "hot take" might seem controversial amid the "current state of political rhetoric and debate."

"It's important to note progress because to deny how far we've come would do a disservice to the cause of justice."

Citing decreased rates of poverty, crime, and teen pregnancy since his own 1983 graduation, as well as increases in women in the workforce and black people earning college degrees, the president declared "America is better. The world is better and, stay with me now, race relations are better."

"My election did not create a post-racial society. I don't know who was propagating that notion. That was not mine," he said. "But the election itself was just one indicator of how attitudes have changed."

"When I was graduating the main black hero on TV was Mr. T. Rap and Hip Hop were counter culture, underground. Now, Shonda Rhimes owns Thursday nights, and Beyoncรฉ runs the world."

"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," he said.

Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

Noting his remarks were not intended to ignore racism or other challenges remaining, the president said he hoped to spur the class of 2016 into action, although he was critical of the methods of some on the left.

"Change requires more than righteous anger," he said, alluding to social-media driven movements like Black Lives Matter. "It requires a program and it requires organizing."

Decrying low voter turnout, particularly in midterm, state, and local elections, the president valorized the importance of voting. "You don't have to risk your life to cast a ballot. Other people already did that for you." he said. "What's your excuse?"

He also criticized efforts by some students across the country to have right-wing figures banned from speaking on college campuses, as well as the efforts of demonstrators who seek to shut down political rallies.

"Don't do that, no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths," Obama cautioned. "Because as my grandmother used to tell me, every time a fool speaks, they are just advertising their own ignorance. Let them talk!"

Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

Before he spoke, Obama was honored with an honorary doctorate of science from Howard University, becoming the sixth sitting president to deliver a keynote commencement address at the college.

"Be confident in your heritage, be confident in your blackness," he told the mostly black audience of around 15,000.

"Be confident in your heritage, be confident in your blackness."

"There's no one way to be black.," he said. "Take it from somebody who's seen both sides of the debate about whether I'm black enough. The past couple of months I've had lunch with the Queen of England and hosted Kendrick Lamar in the Oval Office."

"You need to have the same level of confidence [as Prince]," Obama told the students, referring to the boundary-breaking pop icon who died last month. "Or as my daughters tell me all the time, 'You be you, Daddy.' Sometimes Sasha puts a variation on it: 'You do you, Daddy.'"

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