Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles 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.