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  • The President: Hello, Howard!

  • (applause)

  • H-U!

  • Audience: You know!

  • The President: H-U!

  • Audience: You know!

  • The President: (laughs)

  • Thank you so much, everybody.

  • Please, please, have a seat.

  • Oh, I feel important now.

  • Got a degree from Howard.

  • Cicely Tyson said something nice about me.

  • (laughter)

  • Audience Member: I love you, President!

  • The President: I love you back.

  • To President Frederick, the Board of Trustees, faculty

  • and staff, fellow recipients of honorary degrees, thank

  • you for the honor of spending this day with you.

  • And congratulations to the Class of 2016!

  • (applause)

  • Four years ago, back when you were just freshmen, I

  • understand many of you came by my house the night

  • I was reelected.

  • (laughter)

  • So I decided to return the favor and come by yours.

  • To the parents, the grandparents, aunts, uncles,

  • brothers, sisters, all the family and friends who stood

  • by this class, cheered them on, helped them get here

  • today -- this is your day, as well.

  • Let's give them a big round of applause, as well.

  • (applause)

  • I'm not trying to stir up any rivalries here; I just

  • want to see who's in the house.

  • We got Quad?

  • (applause)

  • Annex.

  • (applause)

  • Drew.

  • Carver.

  • Slow.

  • Towers.

  • And Meridian.

  • (applause)

  • Rest in peace, Meridian.

  • (laughter)

  • Rest in peace.

  • I know you're all excited today.

  • You might be a little tired, as well.

  • Some of you were up all night making sure your

  • credits were in order.

  • (laughter)

  • Some of you stayed up too late, ended up at HoChi

  • at 2:00 a.m.

  • (laughter)

  • Got some mambo sauce on your fingers.

  • (laughter)

  • But you got here.

  • And you've all worked hard to reach this day.

  • You've shuttled between challenging classes

  • and Greek life.

  • You've led clubs, played an instrument or a sport.

  • You volunteered, you interned.

  • You held down one, two, maybe three jobs.

  • You've made lifelong friends and discovered exactly what

  • you're made of.

  • The "Howard Hustle" has strengthened your sense of

  • purpose and ambition.

  • Which means you're part of a long line

  • of Howard graduates.

  • Some are on this stage today.

  • Some are in the audience.

  • That spirit of achievement and special responsibility

  • has defined this campus ever since the Freedman's Bureau

  • established Howard just four years after the Emancipation

  • Proclamation; just two years after the Civil War came

  • to an end.

  • They created this university with a vision -- a vision of

  • uplift; a vision for an America where our fates

  • would be determined not by our race, gender, religion

  • or creed, but where we would be free -- in every sense --

  • to pursue our individual and collective dreams.

  • It is that spirit that's made Howard a centerpiece of

  • African-American intellectual life and a

  • central part of our larger American story.

  • This institution has been the home of many firsts: The

  • first black Nobel Peace Prize winner.

  • The first black Supreme Court justice.

  • But its mission has been to ensure those firsts

  • were not the last.

  • Countless scholars, professionals, artists, and

  • leaders from every field received their training here.

  • The generations of men and women who walked through

  • this yard helped reform our government, cure disease,

  • grow a black middle class, advance civil rights, shape

  • our culture.

  • The seeds of change -- for all Americans -- were sown here.

  • And that's what I want to talk about today.

  • As I was preparing these remarks, I realized that

  • when I was first elected President, most of you --

  • the Class of 2016 -- were just starting high school.

  • Today, you're graduating college.

  • I used to joke about being old.

  • Now I realize I'm old.

  • (laughter)

  • It's not a joke anymore.

  • (laughter)

  • But seeing all of you here gives me some perspective.

  • It makes me reflect on the changes that I've seen over

  • my own lifetime.

  • So let me begin with what may sound like a

  • controversial statement -- a hot take.

  • 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.

  • (applause)

  • Let me repeat: America is by almost every measure better

  • than it was when I graduated from college.

  • It also happens to be better off than when I took office --

  • (laughter)

  • -- but that's a longer story.

  • (applause)

  • That's a different discussion for another speech.

  • But think about it.

  • I graduated in 1983.

  • New York City, America's largest city, where I lived

  • at the time, had endured a decade marked by crime and

  • deterioration and near bankruptcy.

  • And many cities were in similar shape.

  • Our nation had gone through years of economic

  • stagnation, the stranglehold of foreign oil, a recession

  • where unemployment nearly scraped 11 percent.

  • The auto industry was getting its clock cleaned by

  • foreign competition.

  • And don't even get me started on the clothes and

  • the hairstyles.

  • I've tried to eliminate all photos of me

  • from this period.

  • I thought I looked good.

  • (laughter)

  • I was wrong.

  • Since that year -- since the year I graduated -- the

  • poverty rate is down.

  • Americans with college degrees, that rate is up.

  • Crime rates are down.

  • America's cities have undergone a renaissance.

  • There are more women in the workforce.

  • They're earning more money.

  • We've cut teen pregnancy in half.

  • We've slashed the African American dropout rate by

  • almost 60 percent, and all of you have a computer in

  • your pocket that gives you the world

  • at the touch of a button.

  • In 1983, I was part of fewer than 10 percent of African

  • Americans who graduated with a bachelor's degree.

  • Today, you're part of the more than 20 percent who will.

  • And more than half of blacks say we're better off than

  • our parents were at our age -- and that our kids will be

  • better off, too.

  • So America is better.

  • And the world is better, too.

  • A wall came down in Berlin.

  • An Iron Curtain was torn asunder.

  • The obscenity of apartheid came to an end.

  • A young generation in Belfast and London have

  • grown up without ever having to think about IRA bombings.

  • In just the past 16 years, we've come from a world

  • without marriage equality to one where it's a reality in

  • nearly two dozen countries.

  • Around the world, more people live in democracies.

  • We've lifted more than 1 billion people

  • from extreme poverty.

  • We've cut the child mortality rate worldwide by

  • more than half.

  • 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.

  • (laughter)

  • 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.

  • (laughter)

  • 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)

  • 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.

  • (applause)

  • 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.

  • (laughter)

  • Yes, our economy has recovered from crisis

  • stronger than almost any other in the world.

  • But there are folks of all races who are still hurting

  • -- who still can't find work that pays enough to keep the

  • lights on, who still can't save for retirement.

  • We've still got a big racial gap in economic opportunity.

  • The overall unemployment rate is 5 percent, but the

  • black unemployment rate is almost nine.

  • We've still got an achievement gap when black

  • boys and girls graduate high school and college at lower

  • rates than white boys and white girls.

  • Harriet Tubman may be going on the twenty, but we've

  • still got a gender gap when a black woman working

  • full-time still earns just 66 percent of what

  • a white man gets paid.