President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama zinged the media and popular culture in separate graduation speeches delivered over the weekend at historically black universities, where both paid tribute to U.S. civil rights icon Dorothy Height, who died April 20 at the age of 98.
Obama told students at Hampton University in Virginia that not everything "on blogs, and on cable, on talk radio" would pass a truth meter and Mrs. Obama urged graduates to not be seduced by a culture that celebrates "fleeting reality show fame rather than the hard labors of lasting success." (Read the transcript of Obama's remarks).
In between media critiques, the First Couple came armed with heavy doses of inspiration.
On Saturday, Mrs. Obama called on graduates of the University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff to be "strong and fearless and proud." In Hampton, Va., Obama told the graduating class to "write the next great chapter in America's story; to meet the tests of your own time; to take up the ongoing work of fulfilling our founding promise."
But during his address, Obama highlighted -- in blunt terms -- the achievement gaps between different racial and income groups.
"By any number of different yardsticks, African Americans are being outperformed by their white classmates, as are Hispanic American," he said. "Students in well-off areas are outperforming students in poorer rural or urban communities, no matter what skin color.
"Globally, it's not even close. In 8th grade science and math, for example, American students are ranked about 10th overall compared to top-performing countries. But African Americans are ranked behind more than 20 nations, lower than nearly every other developed country. So all of us have a responsibility, as Americans, to change this; to offer every single child in this country an education that will make them competitive in our knowledge economy," Obama said.
Both schools were founded in an era when higher education institutions either would not admit African Americans or maintained a quota system that limited the number of African-Americans. Obama told the story of how a young Dorothy Height, accepted at Barnard, was not allowed to attend classes when the school realized she was not white and the two-student quota for African American students had been filled.
Instead, Height marched over to New York University and was enrolled right away. As in graduation addresses she delivered last year, Mrs. Obama relied on her own biography, telling graduates a story she has often told, how growing up on the south side of Chicago, she was "teased for wanting academic success" and was let down by "misguided" adults who "questioned whether a girl with a background like mine could succeed at a school like Princeton."
Lasting success, said Mrs. Obama, often does not come easy, yet students are bombarded with messages from popular culture that suggests otherwise. "And I know that can be frustrating, particularly for young people like you who've been raised in a popular culture that doesn't always value hard work and commitment; a culture that instead glorifies easy answers and instant gratification -- fast food, instant messaging, easy credit."
"Your generation has come of age in a culture that elevates celebrities as fleeting -- these fleeting reality fame rather than the hard labors of lasting success. It's a culture that elevates today's celebrity gossip over the serious issues that will shape our future for decades to come.
"It's a culture that tells us that our lives should be easy, that suffering and struggle should be avoided at all costs, and that we should be able to have everything we want without a whole lot of work. But we know that life really doesn't work that way," she said.
The president, whose White House has openly challenged Fox News -- though a the moment it seems to be a truce -said with all the emerging media outlets, "you're coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don't always rank that high on the truth meter.
"And with iPods and iPads; and Xboxes and PlayStations -- none of which I know how to work -- information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation. So all of this is not only putting pressure on you; it's putting new pressure on our country and on our democracy."
Obama leveled a broadside against claims from various outlets about the impact of his policy proposals or wilder assertions -- such as his not being born in the U.S. -- when he questioned the veracity of content coming from blogs, cable and talk radio,although he did not call out specific news organizations.
"With so many voices clamoring for attention on blogs, and on cable, on talk radio, it can be difficult, at times, to sift through it all; to know what to believe; to figure out who's telling the truth and who's not. Let's face it, even some of the craziest claims can quickly gain traction. I've had some experience in that regard," Obama said.
"Fortunately, you will be well positioned to navigate this terrain. Your education has honed your research abilities, sharpened your analytical powers, given you a context for understanding the world. Those skills will come in handy."
Remembering Dorothy Height
The Obamas attended the funeral for Height last month --Obama delivered a eulogy -- and each talked about her recent death.
Calling Height one of her "SHE-roes," Mrs. Obama said she was "the godmother of the civil rights movement whose recent passing we mourn .... When discussing why she kept up the fight for civil and economic rights all throughout her life, she said, simply, "This is my life's work. It's not a job."
President Obama discussed Height and her long career more extensively. "She was with Eleanor Roosevelt and she was with Michelle Obama. She lived a singular life; one of the giants upon whose shoulders I stand. But she started out just like you, understanding that to make something of herself, she needed a college degree," he said.
"So, she applied to Barnard College –- and she got in. Except, when she showed up, they discovered she wasn't white as they had believed. And they had already given their two slots for African Americans to other individuals. Those slots, two, had already been filled. But Dr. Height was not discouraged. She was not deterred. She stood up, straight-backed, and with Barnard's acceptance letter in hand, she marched down to New York University, and said, 'Let me in.' And she was admitted right away.
"I want all of you to think about this, Class of 2010, because you've gone through some hardships, undoubtedly, in arriving to where you are today. There have been some hard days, and hard exams, and you felt put upon. And undoubtedly you will face other challenges in the future. But I want you to think about Ms. Dorothy Height, a black woman, in 1929, refusing to be denied her dream of a college education. Refusing to be denied her rights. Refusing to be denied her dignity. Refusing to be denied her place in America, her piece of America's promise. Refusing to let any barriers of injustice or ignorance or inequality or unfairness stand in her way.
"That refusal to accept a lesser fate; that insistence on a better life, that, ultimately, is the secret not only of African American survival and success, it has been the secret of America's survival and success," Obama said.
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