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Obama to Howard Students: 'My Election Did Not Create a Post-Racial Society'

WASHINGTON — President Obama told Howard University graduates Saturday that “America is by almost every measure better than it was when I graduated from college” — in 1983 — and “it also happens to be better off than when I took office, but that’s a longer story.”

“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. The second one, they knew what they were getting. The election itself was just one indicator of how attitudes had changed,” Obama said during his commencement address.

Despite gains from the days when “the main black hero on TV was Mr. T,” he added, “racism persists.”

Among inequality issues like employment and economic opportunity, “We’ve got a justice gap when too many black boys and girls pass through a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails.”

“This is one area where things have gotten worse. When I was in college, about half a million people in America were behind bars. Today, there are about 2.2 million. Black men are about six times likelier to be in prison right now than white men.”

The president advised the students at the historically black university to “be confident in your blackness.”

“One of the great changes that’s occurred in our country since I was your age 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,” he said. “In the past couple months, I’ve had lunch with the Queen of England and hosted Kendrick Lamar in the Oval Office. There’s no straitjacket, there’s no constraints, there’s no litmus test for authenticity.”

He stressed to the students that “even if we dismantled every barrier to voting, that alone would not change the fact that America has some of the lowest voting rates in the free world.”

“In 2014, only 36 percent of Americans turned out to vote in the midterms — the second lowest participation rate on record. Youth turnout — that would be you — was less than 20 percent. Less than 20 percent. Four out of five did not vote. In 2012, nearly two in three African Americans turned out. And then, in 2014, only two in five turned out. You don’t think that made a difference in terms of the Congress I’ve got to deal with? And then people are wondering, well, how come Obama hasn’t gotten this done? How come he didn’t get that done? You don’t think that made a difference?” Obama continued.

“What would have happened if you had turned out at 50, 60, 70 percent, all across this country? People try to make this political thing really complicated. Like, what kind of reforms do we need? And how do we need to do that? You know what, just vote. It’s math. If you have more votes than the other guy, you get to do what you want. It’s not that complicated.”

Obama also noted that as a state senator, when he worked on a racial profiling bill, “we were successful because, early on, I engaged law enforcement.”

“I didn’t say to them, oh, you guys are so racist, you need to do something,” he said. “I understood, as many of you do, that the overwhelming majority of police officers are good, and honest, and courageous, and fair, and love the communities they serve.”

“…Democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right. This is hard to explain sometimes. You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want.”