In a commencement address in Atlanta on Sunday to graduating seniors at Morehouse College, President Barack Obama told graduates to fulfill the “special obligation I felt, as a black man like you.” The all-male, historically black liberal arts college was also the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., among other famous graduates.
The president told the graduating students that their background meant they had a duty “to create greater justice both in your own community, but also across our country. To make sure everyone has a voice; everyone gets a seat at the table; to make sure that everyone – no matter what they look like or where they come from, or who they love – gets a chance to walk through those doors of opportunity if they want it bad enough.”
Obama cited his own life as an example several times during his speech, touting his success as a father while also acknowledging some “bad choices” he made in his youth–a veiled reference to his admitted past drug use, which Obama has often acknowledged in books, speeches and debates.
He also admonished Morehouse graduates who aimed to join the professions that they ought to serve the poor:
So yes, go get that law degree. But ask yourself if the only option is to defend the rich and powerful, or if you can also find time to defend the powerless. Yes, go get your MBA, or start that business. But ask yourself what broader purpose your business might serve, in putting people to work, or transforming a neighborhood….Some of you may be headed to medical school to become doctors. But make sure you heal folks in underserved communities who really need it, too.
(Here, the president did not mention his own rather unique career path as an attorney, which included defending landlords in large urban housing developments who had evicted tenants in winter or failed to provide necessary services.)
In one portion of his speech, the president touted Obamacare–and encouraged the graduates to sign up for the new health insurance exchanges created by his signature legislation.
Obama seems to have been carrying out the advice of Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, brother of Obama’s former chief of staff, who argued recently in the Wall Street Journal that young Americans would have to be targeted by a propaganda campaign if the system were not to be dangerously underfunded: “Every commencement address by an administration official should encourage young graduates to get health insurance,” Dr. Emanuel wrote.
Obama advised the graduating class that racism could no longer be leaned upon as a reason for failure: “We’ve got no time for excuses,” he said. He also acknowledged that the U.S. had become tolerant enough to elect a black president. And yet Obama described a nation in which discrimination is still rampant:
See, as Morehouse Men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; to be marginalized; to feel the sting of discrimination. That’s an experience that so many other Americans share. Hispanic Americans know that feeling when someone asks where they come from or tells them to go back. Gay and lesbian Americans feel it when a stranger passes judgment on their parenting skills or the love they share. Muslim Americans feel it when they’re stared at with suspicion because of their faith. Any woman who knows the injustice of earning less pay for doing the same work – she sure feels it.
The premise of Obama’s claim is at odds with recent global survey data, which indicates that the U.S. is among the least racist countries in the world. It is also at odds with the record of his own political career. In the recent past, President Obama has been guilty of many of the sins described above–touting deportations of illegal immigrants; opposing gay marriage until a year ago; moving Muslims out of campaign photographs for fear of arousing prejudice; and, most notoriously, paying women less than men in both his Senate and White House offices.
Overall, President Obama’s remarks repeated a pattern of recent graduation speeches in which he minimized individual achievement in favor of collective obligation.
Curiously, he barely mentioned government, which he has been at great pains to defend in some recent addresses–speeches that have drawn wider criticism in the wake of recent scandals involving abuses of government power.
The word “government” appeared five times in his recent Ohio State commencement speech but not once in the Morehouse address, where the only mentions of government careers were his own presidency and the Atlanta mayoralty of Maynard Jackson.
Obama’s emphasis at Morehouse was on voluntary service to the community–a theme closer to the American philosophical tradition, albeit reformulated to suit the policies and prerogatives of the administration and the Democratic Party.