President Barack Obama encouraged Howard University graduates to work to "shape our collective future" at the school's commencement ceremony on Saturday.
Obama, who was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree, discussed how far the country has come in terms of racial progress.
"It may sound like a controversial statement—a hot take—given the current state our political rhetoric and debate, but America is a better place today than it was when I graduated from college," he said.
He noted that when he received his bachelor's degree in 1983 from Columbia University, black people were underrepresented in positions of power.
Today, he said, "We're no longer entertainers. We're producers, studio executives. No longer small-business owners, we're CEOs. We're mayors, representatives"—and someone in the crowd added, "President."
He told the university's 2,300 graduates, "Be confident in your heritage. Be confident in your blackness. There's no one way to be black."
But in recognizing their blackness, students must also embrace "our particular awareness of injustice, and unfairness, and struggle. That means we cannot sleepwalk through life. We cannot be ignorant of history. We cannot meet the world with a sense of entitlement."
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A crucial aspect of participating in social change is to vote, Obama said.
Vote "not just some of the time but all of the time," he said, adding, "When we don't vote we give away our power."
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Obama remained cautiously optimistic, noting that while the Class of 2016 will have some struggles ahead, they can handle whatever comes their way.
"So make no mistake, Class of 2016. You've got plenty of work to do," Obama said. "But as complicated and sometimes intractable as these challenges may seem, the truth is that your generation is better positioned than any before you to meet those challenges."
Obama will address Rutgers University on May 15 and the U.S. Air Force Academy on June 2 (Superville, AP/U.S. News & World Report, 5/7; Kennedy, "The Two-Way," NPR, 5/7; Nakamura, Washington Post, 5/7).
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