He noted the extension of marriage for same-sex couples in nearly two dozen countries is among the ways the world is “better” than it was when he graduated from Columbia University in 1983.
“I am not saying gaps do not persist,” said Obama. “If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be — what 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.”
Obama in his speech acknowledged transgender people are among those who continue to struggle in the U.S.
“We must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling, not just black folks who are struggling — the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender person, and yes, the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change, and feels powerless to stop it,” he said.
Obama also noted “a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally.”
The president’s speech at the historically black university comes less than two months after Janet Mock cancelled a scheduled appearance at Brown University amid controversy that a Jewish student group had organized it. Debates over the campaign in support of a boycott, economic divestment and sanctions against Israel over its policies towards the Palestinians have grown increasingly heated at Columbia University and other institutions across the U.S. in recent years.
“Don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them,” said Obama.
“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge them,” he added. “Have the confidence to challenge them, the confidence in the rightness of your position. There will be times when you shouldn’t compromise your core values, your integrity, and you will have the responsibility to speak up in the face of injustice. But listen. Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas.”
Obama delivered his speech two weeks after first lady Michelle Obama gave the commencement address at Jackson State University, a historically black university in Mississippi.
Michelle Obama said the country saw “how swiftly progress can hurdle backwards” when Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed a sweeping religious freedom law that critics contend allows anti-LGBT discrimination. Her comments also came against the backdrop of the continued outrage over North Carolina’s House Bill 2 that prevents trans people from using public restrooms consistent with their gender identity and bans local municipalities from enacting LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances.
“We’ve got to stand side by side with all our neighbors — straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender; Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu immigrant, Native American — because the march for civil rights isn’t just about African Americans,” said Michelle Obama. “its about all Americans.”