Many of you soon-to-be college graduates are determined to make the world a better place. Some of you are choosing careers in public service or joining nonprofits or volunteering in your communities.
But many of you are cynical about politics. You see the system as inherently corrupt. You doubt real progress is possible.
“What chance do we have against the Koch brothers and the other billionaires?” you’ve asked me.
Cynicism is self-fulfilling. You have no chance if you assume you have no chance.
“But it was different when you graduated,” youths say. “The ’60s were a time of social progress.”
When I graduated in 1968, the Vietnam War was raging. Over half a million American troops were already there. I didn’t know if I’d be drafted.
Two months before, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. America’s cities were burning. Bobby Kennedy had just been gunned down.
George (“segregation forever”) Wallace was on his way to garnering 10 million votes and carrying five Southern states. Richard Nixon was well on his way to becoming president.
I remember a classmate who was dating a black girl being spit on in a movie theater. The Supreme Court had only the year before struck down state laws against interracial marriage. My entire graduating class of almost 800 contained only six young black men and four Hispanics.
I remember the girlfriend of another classmate almost dying from a back-alley abortion because safe abortions were almost impossible to get. I remember a bright young female law school graduate in tears because no law firm would hire her because she was a woman. I remember one of my classmates telling me in anguish that he was a homosexual, fearing he’d be discovered and his career would be ruined.
The environmental movement had yet not been born. Two-thirds of America’s waterways were unsafe for swimming or fishing because of industrial waste and sewage.
It all seemed pretty hopeless. I assumed America was going to hell.
When I graduated college, I would not have believed that in my lifetime women would gain rights over their own bodies, including the legal right to have an abortion. Or that women would become chief executives of major corporations, secretaries of state, contenders for the presidency. Or that they’d outnumber men in college.
I would not have imagined that 11 states would allow gays and lesbians to marry, and that a majority of Americans would support equal marriage rights.
Or that the nation would have a large and growing black middle class.
It would have seemed impossible that a black man, the child of an interracial couple, would become president of the United States.
I would not have predicted that the rate of college enrollment among Hispanics would exceed that of whites.
I would not have believed our nation capable of so much positive change.
Yet we achieved it. And we have just begun. Widening inequality, a shrinking middle class, global warming, the corruption of our democracy by big money — all of these, and more, must be addressed. To make progress on these will require no less steadfastness, intelligence and patience than was necessitated before.
The genius of America lies in its resilience and pragmatism. We believe in social progress because we were born into it. It is our national creed.
Which is to say, I understand your cynicism. It looks pretty hopeless.
But, believe me, it isn’t.
Not if you pitch in.