Speaking at a historically black college, President Obama said Sunday that he sometimes blamed his youthful failings on racism and urged graduates to look up to black male role models such as filmmaker Spike Lee.
Protected by a canopy in a steady rain at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Mr. Obama told the drenched graduates and their families that they can’t afford to use “the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation” as an excuse for any shortcomings.
“We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices,” Mr. Obama said. “Growing up, I made a few myself. Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down.”
Various biographical accounts of Mr. Obama’s teenage years in Hawaii have described him as an underachieving student who enjoyed smoking marijuana frequently.
The president said without some opportunities, his life might have turned out differently. “I might have been in prison,” Mr. Obama said. “I might have been unemployed. I might not have been able to support a family. And that motivates me.”
But Mr. Obama said black men today — he even used the term “brothers” — cannot use racism as a crutch to explain away any failures.
“We’ve got no time for excuses — not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven’t,” he said. “We’ve got no time for excuses,” Mr. Obama said. “Not because the bitter legacy of slavery and segregation have 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.”
The president’s speech to the all-male class at Morehouse was unusual in the level of his introspection on race, and his bluntness on the responsibilities of black men. He urged the graduates to help the powerless in society.
And even though he said his job as president is to help Americans of all races, he added, “there are some things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves.”
“Be a good role model and set a good example for that young brother coming up,” Mr. Obama said. “If you know somebody who’s not on point, go back and bring that brother along — those who’ve been left behind, who haven’t had the same opportunities we have — they need to hear from you. We’ve got to teach them just like what we have to learn, what it means to be a man — to serve your city like Maynard Jackson; to shape the culture like Spike Lee.”
It was Mr. Obama’s second commencement speech of this graduation season. He spoke to the graduates of Ohio State University two weeks ago, and will address the graduating class at the Naval Academy in Annapolis on Friday.
Mr. Obama also spoke more than he usually does about his upbringing, and the fact that his father abandoned him. He remembers meeting his father briefly only once, when he was 10 years old.
“I was raised by a heroic single mom, wonderful grandparents — made incredible sacrifices for me,” he told the graduates. “And I know there are moms and grandparents here today who did the same thing for all of you. But I sure wish I had had a father who was not only present, but involved. Didn’t know my dad.”
The president said his experience impressed on him the need to be a good father and husband, and that his efforts at home are more important to him than his achievements as president.
“Everything else is unfulfilled if we fail at family, if we fail at that responsibility,” he said. “I know that when I am on my deathbed someday, I will not be thinking about any particular legislation I passed … 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 president combined his visit to Morehouse with a fundraiser Sunday in Georgia for Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate.