May 20, 2018
Address to the Class of 2018
Remarks as Prepared
President Wippman; members of the board of trustees: Thank you for this most extraordinary honor. To the Hamilton faculty and staff; honored guests; family and friends of the graduates: Thank you for inviting me to share in this wonderful celebration. And to the class of 2018: Thank you for including me in your ranks today, and, most importantly, congratulations!
A few moments from now, you will accept your senior canes, and officially earn your places as graduates of this extraordinary institution: one of our nation’s premier liberal-arts colleges. But first, we—your families and teachers and friends—pause in celebration of you, and in reflection.
We marvel at your accomplishments, at your drive and determination. We express gratitude for the promise of your tomorrows. But this moment also belongs to history: the histories from which you emerge, the history of this college that dates back to the very beginning of our republic, and the history that each of you will make.
I’m fascinated by American history, and Hamilton’s story is especially remarkable to me. Some 225 years ago, a Presbyterian minister—a missionary from Connecticut—had the bright idea that the young men of central New York deserved access to an excellent education. At that time, the United States Constitution was just four years old; the nation itself was only 17, younger than many of you, when you first arrived on campus. And that same year, President George Washington laid the cornerstone for the U.S. Capitol building.
In other words, this college and this country share a founding chapter—and a founding father. Every cry of “Let’s go, Continentals!” is a reminder of the lineage and legacy of which you are part.
Think of the giant footsteps in which you follow; the giant shoulders on which you stand. Think of all the names that precede yours on the College Register, or the luminaries and leaders who have also called College Hill home.
This place has produced civil rights leaders like Bob Moses, and civil rights lawyers like Mary Bunato, who argued successfully in front of the Supreme Court for the right to marry. It has been home to Nobel Prize winning scientists like Paul Greengard, diplomats like United States Ambassador William Luers, inspiring filmmakers like Yance Ford (whose work the Ford Foundation proudly supports), and philanthropists like my friend, the brilliant, inimitable Nancy Roob.
And yet, your obligation to this history doesn’t just mean avoiding the bronze map. As you prepare for the wider world you are about to enter, I believe this country could learn a thing or two from Hamilton College, and from each of you.
I was struck to learn that the motto of this place is “know thyself,” because “[knowing] thyself” must also mean knowing your history—how the past shapes you. Indeed, we draw on our country’s history for a shared identity and ideas, but this same history continues to express itself in and through our nation’s toughest challenges.
We see the ripples of history in debates over immigration to our nation of immigrants, and whether DREAMers have a right to the American Dream. Our history explains the broadest trends and the narrowest instances, like how the racial inequalities of our criminal justice system and mass incarceration are rooted in our legacy of slavery, or why two black men were arrested at a Starbucks for simply attempting to meet a potential business partner.
In other words, our history is the reason we believe that all are “created equal,” and our history is also the reason we have vast inequalities in our society today. And so, knowing our history will help us ensure that we move forward and together, rather than backward and apart.
The iconic poet Maya Angelou put it perfectly in her piece, On the Pulse of Morning:
History despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage need not be lived again.
I reacquainted myself with this powerful idea a few weeks ago, in Montgomery, Alabama, where I attended the opening of the remarkable new Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Thanks to my friend and Ford Foundation trustee Bryan Stevenson—and the organization he leads, the Equal Justice Initiative—these twin institutions are bringing light to one of the darkest chapters of our past.
You probably know the history. From the rubble of Civil War, the American people—north and south; white and black—hoped to reconstruct a more free, more fair society. Two decades later, however, they had merely restored the old order of the American south—an order reinforced by decades of white-supremacist, white-nationalist terror. Across the nation—including in the north—mobs gathered to torture and terrorize African Americans, and in the process, they drew—in blood—a color line that still defines, and degrades, and divides.
But now, through these two new institutions—this hallowed, haunting new monument and museum—a new generation is excavating an important part of the American narrative and ensuring that we do not forget the hardest parts of our history.
As I made my way through the site, I stood eye to eye with statues of slaves in chains. I walked beneath hundreds of metal columns that hung from the ceiling like tombstones, etched with the names of the victims. I read graphic descriptions of lynching after lynching, each more violent than the one that preceded it.
It was an immersion in pain—in grief, and trauma, and inhuman cruelty. But in a strange way, it was also liberating.
Like many of the others of all races and backgrounds who were there that day—and the many others who will walk those halls in the years to come—I found that after confronting the horrors of these events and their lasting impact, I came away with a renewed sense of hope. Hope that our nation can fulfill the ideals embodied in those hallowed documents written by our founding fathers.
Achieving this, however, will not be easy.
First, it is going to take courage, the kind Maya Angelou describes. The kind of moral courage so many of our leaders are unwilling or unable to demonstrate, because of the skewed incentives in today’s risk-averse, social media obsessed culture. The courage to embrace our different experiences of America, while also aspiring to its highest ideals. The courage to realize—not just recite—the promise that all are created equal.
And second, it will require empathy, because if you can be courageous enough to “know thyself” and our history, then we must have the courage to attempt to know others—who they are, and how they live, and what they value, and why they feel and think the way they do.
For America to succeed, we must be a more empathetic people and nation. Even though I am a progressive, gay, black man living in New York City, I can have empathy for conservative, straight, white men in the American South who may have a very different world view. For this democracy to work, we have to be able to recognize our different individual identities, backgrounds, and experiences, while also seeking the greater purpose and common values and human dignity that we all share.
We have to know, as Senator John McCain writes in his new book, and I’m quoting here:
“We are citizens of a republic made of shared ideals forged in a new world to replace the tribal enmities that tormented the old one. Even in times of political turmoil such as these, we share that awesome heritage and the responsibility to embrace it.”
Class of 2018, this is my hope for you:
That you embrace our history—the good and the bad—and lead the way forward with empathy and compassion.
That you can be courageous in your pursuit of our common humanity.
That you “know thyself” and the gifts bestowed unto you—and that you can reach out to others and build bridges of understanding, even and especially when it’s uncomfortable.
In my own life—from a shotgun house on a dirt road in Liberty County, Texas (where I was born) to the iconic Ford Foundation building in midtown Manhattan—I have seen how this kind of radical empathy can renew, and heal, and transform.
As I reflect on this perilous time in American history and what will be needed for us to move forward together as a nation, I think about the philanthropist and arts patron Agnes Gund.
I recently found myself sitting with Aggie inside the gates of the San Quentin prison in California. What was Aggie doing at a prison? Well, it’s a question that her Park Avenue friends certainly asked.
Aggie loves art, but she loves the idea of justice even more, so she sold one of her prized works of art for $150 million, and took the proceeds to establish the Art for Justice Fund, which is committed to ending the scourge of mass incarceration in America.
On the face of things, this 80-year-old grandmother, graduate of Miss Porters School, Connecticut College, Harvard, and President Emerita of the Museum of Modern Art might seem an unlikely champion of criminal-justice reform. But there we were, walking into jail together—through the gates, and guards, and metal detectors.
Our guide was a man whose life could not have been more different from hers. He was black, convicted at age 16, now serving a sentence of 35 years to life. His beard had grayed. As they talked—Aggie in a stylish but practical vest; her tour guide in a jacket labeled “prisoner”—I felt sadness, and I felt hope. These two people, with such vastly different lives, were standing shoulder to shoulder and walking hand in hand.
Empathy and courage make that possible.
Or another illustration, this one of another person I’ve come to know: Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks.
After two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks, the national outcry was swift—and justified. Accusations of racial bias came fast and furious, and Howard was the first one to say that he agreed. He didn’t defer, deflect, or deny. He didn’t dodge the question or pass the buck. He admitted, head on, that his company—even though he has one of the most diverse boards and leadership teams in corporate America—must address racial bias within its own ranks.
This was not easy or comfortable. But progress never is. Nine days from now, 8,000 stores will close for an afternoon—and tens of thousands of Starbucks employees will begin the work of confronting racial bias. Empathy and courage makes that possible.
And speaking of empathy and courage, one need look no further than right here, at Hamilton College. Last year, I watched from afar with admiration as over 1,100 students, faculty, staff, and alumni of Hamilton signed a petition to make this school a sanctuary for DREAMers. President Wippman pledged Hamilton would protect information about immigration status, and joined leaders of colleges and universities across the country to advocate on behalf of these students who call America home.
Empathy—caring about others in your community, no matter how different they are from you—that’s what makes this possible.
For the Dreamers across the country—including a few who may be graduating here today—these gestures are a sign of hope. A sign that despite our country’s difficult history, despite the inequality in our society, we might have the courage to do better.
Class of 2018: I cannot ask you to rewrite this nation’s history. No one can do that.
But as you leave here today, I do ask that you write the next great chapter of world history in a way that reflects your courage and your empathy, that reflects what you know to be true of yourself and your generation. Because, if recent history is any indication, it will be your generation that has the courage and empathy to make sure all people, regardless of citizenship status, feel safe and able to succeed.
It will be your generation that has the courage to root out systemic racism and sexism and inequality of all kinds, and the empathy to heal society’s oldest wounds.
It will be you—all of you—who have the courage to face the painful truths, and the empathy to embrace others because of our differences and our common identity and humanity.
It will be you and your generation that has the strength to bring people together and forge a way forward.
And because you come from Hamilton, I know you are up to the task.
For this reason—because of you—my faith in a better future has never been stronger.