WASHINGTON — Speaking to graduates at the nation’s most prominent historically black university, President Barack Obama invoked Bulls legend Michael Jordan to illustrate one of his points about progress, the times we live in and how “there’s no one way to be black.”
Obama has delivered speeches on race. Two of the most notable: On March 18, 2008, in Philadelphia, addressing the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy; and his eulogy last June 26 for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine slaughtered in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white-supremacist shooter.
On Saturday at Howard University, however, Obama was not burdened by the sorrowful events of the day or an endangered campaign when he talked to the youths.
This speech was for Howard graduates who came of age during the tenure of the nation’s first black president, now in the last months of his second term.
At the same time, while they were taking classes at Howard’s campus, the nation grappled with police shootings in Ferguson and other places; mass incarcerations of blacks; and the water crisis in the majority black city of Flint, Michigan.
So things are complicated, not neat, but not all bad when you take a longer view.
Obama framed progress — for the nation in general, for blacks in particular — starting not when he entered the White House in January 2009, but when he picked up his undergraduate degree from Columbia University in New York in 1983.
“America is better. The world is better. And stay with me now — race relations are better since I graduated. That’s the truth,” Obama said.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Referring to the headliner of the recent White House Correspondents’ Association dinner and the Charlotte Hornets basketball team, Obama continued, “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.”
Without neglecting all the negative stuff — Obama didn’t mince words about the persistence of racism and inequality — he said: “I wanted to start, Class of 2016, by opening your eyes to the moment that you are in.”
He asked the youths to imagine, to pick a time in history to be born, not knowing “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.”
Obama, who straddled white and black cultures growing up, urged the students to be “confident in your blackness,” noting that one of the “great changes” since 1983 “is the realization there’s no one way to be black. Take it from somebody who’s seen both sides of debate about whether I’m black enough.”
As for the real political world, Obama recalled his days as a state senator from Illinois putting together a deal with Republicans in Springfield to videotape confessions in capital cases.
He told the students passion for a cause is OK, but to get change, “you have to have a strategy. . . . Not just hashtags. But votes.”
FOOTNOTE: Joining Obama on the Howard stage was senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. Her father, Dr. James Edward Bowman Jr., picked up his undergrad degree at Howard and went on to Howard Medical School. His namesake father also was a Howard graduate.