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Commencement Address

Heather C. McGhee

President of Demos

Sunday, May 27, 2018
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To be a Better American

Congratulations, Class of 2018! You did it. And congratulations, parents and families! Your job is not at all done. Just kidding. Kind of.

To deliver this address at this institution is a great honor. My gratitude goes to all the students, the faculty and staff, particularly the ones who worked overtime to make sure everything was in place today, and the board of trustees.

I particularly want to thank President Bradley for welcoming me as the speaker for your first commencement.

It’s quite something to share this day with you all. I remember my own commencement so vividly, the swirl of emotions as you say goodbye to a place that’s been home, a place where you found your voice and most importantly, a place where you made amazing friends.

My words of advice for you today come from some lessons I’ve learned while developing a very unlikely friendship.

And I mean really unlikely. I mean, his first words to me were, “I’m a white male and I’m prejudiced.”

It was August 2016 and I was a guest on a political call-in show on the TV network C-SPAN. I was there to talk about issues as I do regularly in my job as president of a think tank that does research and advocacy on solutions to inequality in America. It was about halfway through the show, and I had answered questions about my usual topics—democracy reform, student debt, taxes, trade and jobs, when a man who identified himself as Garry from North Carolina called in and uttered those words. “I’m a white male, and I am prejudiced.”

I was taken aback. But I was also on live television, and a live television show where the camera is locked in on my face the whole time, so I had to keep my cool. This “Garry from North Carolina” went on to detail his prejudice, his fear of black men particularly; he talked about gangs and crime and drugs, things he saw on the news. Now to me, black men are my father, my brother, my friends—and I was sitting there on set thinking that fears like Garry’s make their lives harder, harder for them to rent an apartment, get a job, walk down the street. But again. Live television. Close-up. Just... my face. So I’m listening. And then the caller says something that just floors me. He ends his question by asking, “but what can I do to change, you know, to become a better American?”

A better American.

Little could Garry have known that the heart of this question—what does it mean to be an American? In as diverse a nation as ours, who are we to one another? —has been the central animating question of my public life. But more on that in a moment.

Right now, I’m in the chair, on set, hot lights, live TV, he’s asked his question and now it’s up to me to answer it. I take a breath and say the first thing that comes to mind: “thank you”. I thanked him for admitting his fears and prejudices, because so many people are unwilling to do just that, and then we exhaust ourselves debating whether prejudice still exists.

So then off the top of my head, I gave him some ideas about what he could do to integrate his life: actually get to know black families to counteract his prejudices; turn off the TV news that traffics in stereotypes and pick up a book about African Americans’ contributions to American history; join a church or other group that puts him in fellowship with people of different races.

The way these shows are structured, you answer the question and the control room switches to the next caller, so that was it for Garry and me. But the following weekend, my colleague at Demos put the clip of our exchange up on our Facebook page, and by Monday it had over a million views. Now, Demos’ facebook page is usually charts and graphs—we count our page likes in the dozens. But this clip went viral. It got posted and reposted by other sites, it now has over 20 million views.

Later the next week, I was on TV again, this time talking about the viral video, and Garry was watching at home (he watches a lot of cable). He saw my Twitter handle on the bottom of the screen, and got on Twitter for the first time to contact me. His first tweet was, “How does this thing work?” But he figured it out, and found me. We talked on the phone, and a couple of months later when my job took me to North Carolina, I paid him a visit. It turns out, he had taken my recommendations to heart and set out on a journey to change his life. He told me that when he heard my answer to his call, it was like I had “wiped the dirt from a window and let the light in.”

As I would get to know this “racist caller”, and then, despite the odds, over the past nearly two years, learn to call Garry a friend, our conversations often came back to this question, what does it mean to be an American?

I wonder if you’ve ever asked yourself that question. Even those of you who are citizens of other countries, but have spent your college years here, whether you intend to stay and make a life here or go home, it’s still relevant to you. In fact, being from another country and spending time here has always been a signature part of the American experience – in the city I live, New York, 40 percent of the population is foreign-born.

So, have you figured it out? It’s not an easy question. Even our American mottos don’t fully give us the answer. Is it “In God We Trust”? But which? We practice every religion on the globe, including, increasingly, none. “Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness”? We’re ranked pretty low on the global happiness index, and have the largest per-capita prison population in the world. “All Men are Created Equal”? I run an organization entirely focused on American inequality; the richest 1 percent own 40 percent of the nation’s wealth.

No, I think it’s going to be up to your generation to define anew, what it means to be an American. You’re part of the largest, most diverse generation in American history—the one born at the end of the so-called American Century, born just after the internet went live and just before the towers went down, the first generation for whom the American Dream of doing better than your parents financially is not a guarantee, but the best generation in terms of educational attainment, volunteerism, and a belief that what you do matters more than what you earn.

It will be up to you to redefine what it means to be an American for the 21st century because for so much of our history Americanness was defined in exclusive racial terms, which is odd for a nation populated by so many nations at its founding—the French, English, Spanish, the tribes of Western and Southern Africa, the Navajo, Seminole, Mohican. To be American was to be white—this new catch-all category, both shallower than those rich national identities and more imbued with meaning, and rights. 6 The fact that that sounds harsh to your ears – I saw you, “what do you mean, to be American is to be white?” —is a good thing. It was always a fiction, created by a narrow elite to justify their own position and profits; to excuse the great immoralities of expropriating land from indigenous people and enslaving one-eighth of the population because they weren’t white and therefore weren’t fully human. This story served its purpose; the tellers of this tale easily amassed unprecedented wealth; fully 80 percent of the US Gross National Product on the eve of the Civil War stemmed from slave labor.

Yes, painting whole groups of people with a broad brush, creating a hierarchy of human value by saying this group is good, normal, upstanding—and this group is dangerous, criminal, a threat to be controlled—that’s part of our inheritance as Americans, too. You’ve had the opportunity to learn the fuller, pluralistic history of America here at Vassar, but as you try to make sense of our political moment, know that the majority of people alive today haven’t.

So I hope that in the America you’re going to define, every time you see someone telling that same story, that some groups of people are better than others, you question it... you ask, what kind of policies is this story trying to excuse, and who’s profiting? That’s what Garry does now. He still watches the politicians and the paid bullies on cable news but he watches what they do, not just what they say. He has realized that he’s actually not profiting from this story, just like the rest of the half of American families who can’t pay a $400 bill without going into debt or selling something, even at a time of record corporate profits. Garry now sees that the people pointing the finger at poor families, Black people and immigrants are the ones with the most to gain out of dividing white Americans from their common interests with people of color; making the middle class blame the poor for how hard it is to get ahead, and generally sowing public distrust in the vehicles for collective action to improve all our lives. This story of division has a purpose today, too.

I’m learning a lot from seeing this country through Garry’s widening eyes, as is he from seeing it through mine. Now, I want to be clear that even though a Brooklyn progressive and an Appalachian conservative have become friends, I don’t believe that it’s my responsibility to reach out to everyone who hates and fears people like me. I don’t believe we have to extend a hand or give a platform as a matter of right to people who wish us harm. Remember, Garry started the conversation by admitting his prejudice, not by denying it and saying I was the racist for talking about racism. There are some values that should be overarching American values, after so many have struggled and given their lives to make them real, and in the America that you will define, I believe that rejecting racism will be one of those core, incontrovertible values. We owe it to ourselves and our national inheritance to make it so. And we’re getting there. That’s why Garry, on some instinctive level, knew he had to change in order to become a Better American.

So no, the black woman who was so nice to the white racist on TV is not going to advise you to always do the same. But I will advise you to remember that the idea of a hierarchy of human value is a very well-marketed idea in our media and our politics, and things will really start to change when we place our blame more on those who are selling it for their own gain than on those who are desperate enough to buy it. So, what does it mean to be an American – even, dare say, a better American? I think the story of Garry and me is an only in America story: a story of redemption, and transformation and human connection across race.

Because America is the world's boldest experiment in democracy: a nation of ancestral strangers with ties to every community on the globe, all met here with the audacious promise that we could become one people.

I believe that if there is such a thing as American exceptionalism, our gorgeous diversity is its source, and your generation will be the one to finally reap the benefits of that, to enjoy the alchemy that’s created when people of different backgrounds join together to make a place better—more welcoming, more fair, more human—than they found it. It’s not easy to come together across lines of difference, but it’s worth it, and I do believe it’s what’s required to be a better American.

I’m sorry that on this special day of beginnings for the class of 2018, our democracy is being strangled by those who are holding on, white-knuckled, to a tiny idea of We the People, who are denying the beauty of what you are becoming.

They would have us believe that all the world’s peoples have met here in order to compete for dominance. I believe you’ll prove them wrong: that the proximity of so much difference is going to reveal to us our common humanity.

Your generation will show that what they say is a threat is in fact our country’s salvation—for when a nation founded on a belief in a hierarchy of human value finally rejects that belief—then and only then will we have discovered a New World.

That is our destiny. To make it manifest, it’ll be up to you to challenge yourselves to live your lives in solidarity across color, origin and class; to demand changes to the rules to disrupt the very notion that those who have more money are worth more in our democracy and our economy.

You’re leaving this precious community today, and you’ll go out into a society where the rules are still being written by those who were born in a different America. And I mean that quite literally. Our top political leaders are in their 70s; that means they were born before Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act ended whites-only schools and stores; before the Immigration Act of 1965 lifted the racial bans on people becoming Americans from Africa and Asia and Latin America, before the Women’s Rights and Gay Rights Movements. Though not all people of that generation are resistant to change, it’s clear that some of the most powerful ones in the country right now are. Those are our leaders, but they won’t be for long; you’re already part of the largest potential voting bloc – larger even than the Baby Boomers – so you’ll have the chance to redefine American leadership by deciding that to be a better American is to vote, and vote for a reflective, inclusive democracy.

You’re likely to go off and work at companies where statistics show the executives are virtually all men—96% at the Fortune 500—and also often carrying the stories of an earlier order of things. But you’ll better understand those industries’ fastest-growing markets: young people, immigrants and people of color, women who are leading their households—and you’ll have the chance to redefine American enterprise by deciding that to be a better American is to open up markets and the doors of opportunity to everyone... and sometimes put out a stepping stool or an onramp to make sure everyone can actually enter.

And finally, and this one is personal—but you’ll leave today and move into neighborhoods, and find new circles of friends, and as you do so, you’re likely to discover that most neighborhoods don’t have the diversity you experienced even on this campus. There’s a sorting that happens, based on whether your family has wealth or debt, whether your parents can help you with the security deposit or not; whether you feel like you’ll be welcome in the local coffee shops and bars. Our neighborhoods and towns are far more segregated than you’re going to want them to be. But you will have the chance to redefine American community by deciding that to be a better American is to be a neighbor to Americans from all walks of life.

You’ll have a chance, one night at a bar, to look around at the group that may have gravitated towards each other at your first job, and decide that it’s not enough, because it doesn’t reflect who we really are. And you’ll join some club from a culture not your own, or shoot, you’ll swipe right on a person with a different background whose smile you like, because being a better American means learning to love more Americans than just the ones who look like you.

You may be asking, why is this advocate who cares about laws and policies and programs giving me love advice? Well, I actually I think it’s all connected. When Americans of different backgrounds don’t know each other, when we lack empathy, solidarity—and yes, love—our public policies reflect that, and we’re all the worse for it.

I’m not that much older than you. But from my proximity to you and my perch in national policymaking, I see the America that is becoming. She’s going to be led by you. She’s going to value the next generation more than next quarter’s profits, and finally tackle climate change. She’s going to renew our democracy so that the people have the final say, not the corporations and the lobbyists. She’s going to invest in what connects us—our public schools, our infrastructure, our systems of care—not in walls and prisons to divide us.

You are going to renew this country’s promise, and in so doing, make her welcoming to the world. You’re going to be better Americans, more courageous, more ready to stand up for each other, to challenge the status quo in the interest of a larger circle of humankind. So please, take this day to say goodbye but then get on out there and get to it. Garry and I are rooting for you.