Obama painted a picture of progress while discussing race relations in the U.S., but also noted that much more still needs to be done. He said the country is “a better place today” than when he graduated from Columbia University more than 30 years ago.
“A lot of folks didn’t even think blacks had the tools to be a quarterback,” Obama told the historically black school in Washington, D.C. “When I was a graduate, the main black hero on TV was Mr. T. Rap and hip-hop were counter-culture. Now Shonda Rhimes owns Thursday night and Beyonce runs the world.”
Rhimes is the showrunner of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder,” which comprise ABC’s hit Thursday night lineup.
Obama said there were no black CEOs of top companies and few black judges when he received a bachelor’s degree in 1983, but now “we’re producers, studio executives. We’re no longer small-business owners, we’re CEOs. We’re mayors, representatives.”
However, he said “racism persists, inequality persists” and this “generation is in better position than any before you to meet those challenges.” He also noted disparities in employment, pay and criminal justice.
Obama told the 2,300 Howard graduates to embrace their identity.
“Be confident in your blackness,” Obama said. “There is no one way to be black. … There is no litmus test for authenticity.”
Obama, who was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree from Howard, will deliver two more commencement speeches this spring, speaking at Rutgers University in New Jersey on May 15 and at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado on June 2.