President Obama Sets Tone at Morehouse

I love commencement addresses. Of course, I’d rather give them than sit and listen to them, but I’m still a fan. This weekend, we had Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak give UC Berkeley grads two formulas for happiness:

1) Happiness equals S minus F (smiles minus frowns).

2) Happiness equals F cubed — food, fun and friends.

Wozniak added: “I had to admit there might be a fourth ‘F.'”

Then there was funny man Stephen Colbert at the University of Virginia, who joked about Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings.

“In public life, we often see Jefferson as the embodiment of White male patriarchy,” Colbert said, “but in his private life, he was known for, shall we say, embracing diversity. Very affirmative in his actions. Am I right? I am right. They did the DNA tests.”

But the best commencement speech this week, by far, was the one delivered by President Obama at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Obama had his funny moments. But his speech was more like a model for how to live in a new diverse America.

First off, despite one of the worst weeks of his presidency, Obama still had things in perspective:

“I know that when I am on my deathbed someday, I will not be thinking about any particular legislation I passed; I will not be thinking about a policy I promoted; I will not be thinking about the speech I gave, I will not be thinking about the Nobel Prize I received. I will be thinking about that walk I took with my daughters. I’ll be thinking about a lazy afternoon with my wife. I’ll be thinking about sitting around the dinner table and seeing them happy and healthy and knowing that they were loved. And I’ll be thinking about whether I did right by all of them.”

The speech oozed family values. But the president was also speaking at Martin Luther King Jr.’s alma mater. Obama knew he had to drive home a sense of mission and responsibility.

My job, as President, is to advocate for policies that generate more opportunity for everybody — policies that strengthen the middle class and give more people the chance to climb their way into the middle class. Policies that create more good jobs and reduce poverty, and educate more children, and give more families the security of health care, and protect more of our children from the horrors of gun violence. That’s my job. Those are matters of public policy, and it is important for all of us — black, white and brown — to advocate for an America where everybody has got a fair shot in life. Not just some. Not just a few. (Applause.)

But along with collective responsibilities, we have individual responsibilities…

So what I ask of you today is the same thing I ask of every graduating class I address: Use that power for something larger than yourself. Live up to (Morehouse) President Mays’ challenge. Be “sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings, and the injustices of society.” And be “willing to accept responsibility for correcting (those) ills.”

Then the president got down to the real nitty-gritty for the “Me Generation”:

I know that some of you came to Morehouse from communities where life was about keeping your head down and looking out for yourself. Maybe you feel like you escaped, and now you can take your degree and get that fancy job and the nice house and the nice car — and never look back. And don’t get me wrong — with all those student loans you’ve had to take out, I know you’ve got to earn some money. With doors open to you that your parents and grandparents could not even imagine, no one expects you to take a vow of poverty. But I will say it betrays a poverty of ambition if all you think about is what goods you can buy instead of what good you can do. (Applause.)

So, yes, go get that law degree. But if you do, ask yourself if the only option is to defend the rich and the powerful, or if you can also find some time to defend the powerless. Sure, go get your MBA, or start that business. We need black businesses out there. But ask yourselves what broader purpose your business might serve, in putting people to work, or transforming a neighborhood. The most successful CEOs I know didn’t start out intent just on making money — rather, they had a vision of how their product or service would change things, and the money followed. (Applause.)

There was also a great passage about race and discrimination. In the 21st century, excuses are no longer an option:

I have to say, growing up, I made quite a few myself. Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing. But one of the things that all of you have learned over the last four years is there’s no longer any room for excuses. (Applause.)

….Well, we’ve got no time for excuses. Not because the bitter legacy of slavery and segregation has vanished entirely; they have not. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; we know those are still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world, with millions of young people from China and India and Brazil — many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you did — all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned. (Applause.)

Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and they overcame them. And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too. (Applause.)

So no one cares about you and your problems, until you become part of something bigger than yourself, and show you care about others first:

As Morehouse Men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; know what it’s like to be marginalized; know what it’s like to feel the sting of discrimination. And that’s an experience that a lot of Americans share. Hispanic Americans know that feeling when somebody asks them where they come from or tell them to go back. Gay and lesbian Americans feel it when a stranger passes judgment on their parenting skills or the love that 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 knows what it’s like to be on the outside looking in.

So your experiences give you special insight that today’s leaders need. If you tap into that experience, it should endow you with empathy — the understanding of what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, to know what it’s like when you’re not born on 3rd base, thinking you hit a triple. It should give you the ability to connect. It should give you a sense of compassion and what it means to overcome barriers.

And I will tell you, Class of 2013, whatever success I have achieved, whatever positions of leadership I have held have depended less on Ivy League degrees or SAT scores or GPAs, and have instead been due to that sense of connection and empathy — the special obligation I felt, as a black man like you, to help those who need it most, people who didn’t have the opportunities that I had — because there but for the grace of God, go I — I might have been in their shoes. I might have been in prison. I might have been unemployed. I might not have been able to support a family. And that motivates me. (Applause.)

So it’s up to you to widen your circle of concern — to care about justice for everybody, white, black and brown. Everybody. Not just in your own community, but also across this country and around the world. To make sure everyone has a voice, and everybody gets a seat at the table; that everybody, no matter what you look like or where you come from, what your last name is — it doesn’t matter, everybody gets a chance to walk through those doors of opportunity if they are willing to work hard enough.

Earlier this month, the president gave a commencement address at Ohio State. He talked about being an “active citizen,” but it seemed a tad generic.

This Morehouse speech was different.

What else would you expect from the most powerful African-American man in history speaking at one of the premier HBCUs, but a little more empathy, and a lot more soul.

Emil Guillermo is an award-winning journalist who writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (www.aaldef.org/blog)