However, every once in a while, there is something said that is, well, kind of surprising and almost new. One of those moments happened Saturday when President Obama became the sixth sitting president to give a commencement speech at Howard University, a school founded by the Freedman's Bureau for freed slaves and their children just two years after the Civil War. Howard remains one of the largest and most prestigious historically black colleges and universities in the United States and one of very few with both medical and law schools. All of that is to say that when Obama said the following on Saturday, he was talking to a largely but not totally black audience.
Expand your moral imagination to empathize with all people who are struggling, not just black folks who are struggling, [but] 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.
There are many ways to read Obama's words. They followed a widely reported Obama suggestion that graduates operate in a way that is comfortable and confident in their own version of "blackness." As he put it, "There is no one way to be black." Yet black people must never forget that which does bind all black people from disparate places and backgrounds. That is knowledge of injustice and unfairness and struggle, according to Obama. And that requires that graduates do something more than "sleepwalk through life."
Maybe this bit of Obama's speech was a stealth call for a new kind of political coalition. A coalition of voters of color, many naturalized immigrants and young white adults, after all, voted Obama into office. Perhaps he was suggesting that groups such as middle-aged white men, who have for decades voted overwhelmingly for the Republican Party can, in fact, join a different coalition in service to shared concerns — if they are welcomed to do so by those already in that coalition.
But the most likely explanation for the president's call for expanded moral imaginations at an HBCU commencement would seem to be concern and open recognition of the tangle of fear, anxiety and anger shaping the political behavior of large numbers of white, middle-aged male voters this year. The struggle to acknowledge and understand their experiences ended more than a dozen Republican presidential campaigns, many of which were well-funded or centered on a presumed favorite to win.
Reporters have wrestled with how to describe these voters and accurately but respectfully depict their priorities, even when they venture into the realm of bigotry. Most notably, Donald Trump's ability to empathize with these same voters and, dare we say it, speak with abandon to even their most guttural and factually unarmored fears goes a long way to explain why today he is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
Empathy and the expanded moral imagination. That's a commencement speech nugget, in the middle of graduation season, that is certainly worth some thought.