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Race relations have improved but work remains, Obama tells Howard graduates

WASHINGTON — For Lauren Wilson, graduating from Howard University on Saturday came with an unusual perk: seeing President Obama in person for the first time.

Wilson, an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago who earned an M.B.A. in information systems from the university, said she was thrilled when she found out the president would deliver the commencement address.

When President Obama was elected, “it led me to believe that I could do anything,” said Wilson, 28, who is black. “It inspired me to go seek more education and not hit a ceiling.”

As his presidency winds down, Mr. Obama used the speech at Howard University on Saturday — just his third commencement address as president at a historically black university or college — to reflect on the state of race relations today, nearly eight years after he took office.

“No, my election did not create a post-racial society. I don’t know who was propagating that notion, but that was not mine,” Obama said.

“Racism persists, inequality persists,” Obama said. But he said race relations had improved since he graduated from Columbia University in 1983.

“I want the class of 2016 to open your eyes to the moment you’re in,” Obama said.

Sivona Blake, who graduated on Saturday with a bachelor’s degree in marketing, said the president gave Howard students a kind of “‘black State of the Union.’”

“It was very real,” said Blake, adding that she thought race relations had improved under President Obama. “I like when speeches are real and not sugar coated.”

Other students, like Wilson, had a mixed view.

“I think [race] relations are actually a little bit worse now than when he took office, because things are more divisive,” Wilson said. But “in another aspect, I think it has been better because there is more opportunity for people of color.”

Mr. Obama rarely spoke directly about race in his first term in office. But since his reelection in 2012, the president has done so more often, while launching initiatives like My Brother’s Keeper that are aimed at helping minority students succeed in education and find jobs after graduation.

Still, he has frequently faced criticism that his efforts have not done enough to uplift the black community.

Guests watch as U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address to the 2016 graduating class of Howard University in Washington, U.S., May 7, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts - RTX2D9YS

Guests watch as President Obama delivers the commencement address at Howard University. Photo by Joshua Roberts/REUTERS

Celeste Brown, a graduating senior at Howard who earned a degree in mechanical engineering, said the president was responsible for helping people of all backgrounds succeed, not just one particular group.

“He’s done his best to [improve] equality for women, children, African Americans, and immigrants, so I think he has done a lot,” Brown said. “Is it enough? I don’t know if there is ever enough you can do until there is no more disparity.”

Other students said no one, including the nation’s first black president, could transform race relations single-handedly in a relatively short period of time.

“It’s going to be something that’s going to continue to evolve,” said Alec Williams, 24, who majored in economics. “I think he’s done as much as he can in eight years.”

Obama’s decision to speak at Howard in the last months of his presidency sent a clear message, Williams added.

“It was good to see our president, a black man, stand up there and tell us that yes, it is good to address these things, but it’s also necessary to have a plan of action of how you’re going to change it.”

Wilson, the MBA graduate, agreed that speeches like the one at Howard only strengthened President Obama’s ties to the black community. “He values leaving a great legacy behind with the black community.”

President Obama, who received an honorary degree from the university on Saturday, is scheduled to give two more commencement speeches this year, at Rutgers University in New Jersey on May 15, and at the Air Force Academy in Colorado in June.

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