Michelle Obama: ‘In America we don’t build walls to keep people out’

First lady delivers withering attack on Trump, without mentioning him by name, in soaring final commencement speech as first lady to City College of New York

Michelle Obama has delivered a withering attack on Donald Trump, warning a graduating class of New York students, and through them America, that those who seek to rule by intimidation and fear end up diminishing the hope and freedom of their nations.

Without mentioning the presumptive Republican presidential candidate by name, the first lady made one of the most sustained and potent attacks on Trump since he began his bid for the White House last year. She portrayed his brand of politics as un-American and dangerous, comparing him to world leaders who stifle the voices and dismiss the potential of their citizens who demonise and dehumanise entire groups of people because they have nothing else to offer.

Addressing the class of 2016 at the City College of New York in her 23rd and final commencement speech as first lady, she said: Graduates, that is not who we are. That is not what this country stands for.

She went on: Here in America we dont let our differences tear us apart. Here in America we dont give in to our fears, we dont build walls to keep people out.

She alluded to those who tell us to be afraid of those who are different, to be suspicious of those with whom we disagree. They act as if name-calling is an acceptable substitute for thoughtful debate, as though anger and intolerance should be our default rather than optimism and openness that have always been the engine of our progress.

Obamas speech, possibly the last major public statement she will make as first lady, was a tour de force of a form of quiet political activism that she has made her own, almost without anybody noticing. At a time of unparalleled bitter partisanship in American politics, Obama has managed to pull off the seemingly impossible: while her husband has become a hate figure for the right and a subject of sustained racially tinted trolling, she has managed to keep above the fray while continuing to be a powerful advocate for greater racial tolerance.


Graduating students of the CCNY listen to Michelle Obamas address during the colleges commencement ceremony in New York. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters


Her favorability rating has remained steady at an astronomical 70%, even at times when the presidents have slumped to 40%. The public adoration towards her is reflected in her 5 million followers on Twitter and Instagram, and by the crowd of almost 4,000 students before her under a grey New York sky who chanted Four more years! Four more years! as though she were the president whose term limit is approaching.

Obama, who will be 52 when she leaves the White House, chose the venue for her final commencement carefully. Founded in 1847 on a hill overlooking Harlem, City College was the first free public college in the US with a specific mission to serve the children of poor and immigrant families, in stark contrast to its rich neighbour down the road, Columbia University.

Today, it retains a highly diverse student body. Among Obamas audience on Friday were students speaking more than 100 languages, 40% of whom were first-generation college students. Some have been homeless, and many work two jobs to pay for themselves throughout college. They join a body of alumni that includes Ira Gershwin, Colin Powell and 10 Nobel laureates.

Obama said she had chosen City College for this poignant moment in her own life this is a big day for me too, she said for the very reason that it was what she called a dynamic inclusive place. She said it represented the power of our differences, making us smarter and more creative. That is how the infusion of all our cultures, generation after generation, created the matchless alchemy of our melting pot and helped us build the strongest, most vibrant, most prosperous nation on the planet.

A melting pot, she went on to imply in front of the students who at that point fell ominously silent, Trump was determined to destroy. Despite our history, some folks out there today seem to have a very different perspective, Obama said. They seem to view our diversity as a threat to be contained rather than as a resource to be tapped.

She listed the creations of immigrants to America: Google and eBay, the telephone and the artificial heart, even blue jeans and the national anthem. National landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge and, yes, the White House both were designed by architects who were immigrants.

The underlying theme of Obamas speech the value of racial, religious and ethnic diversity to Americas future lies at the core of how she has moulded her undefined role as the nations first lady. The three great causes she has made her own encouraging young people, especially girls to take up higher education; supporting members of the military and their families, and fighting obesity relate to problems and challenges that African Americans in disproportionate numbers have struggled with over generations.

Yet she did so without being accused of radicalism or anti-white animosity; rather she deployed humour and the power of her own example to bring others along. Her followers included not just liberals and human rights campaigners, but Walmart and big food companies who were cajoled into making major changes that would benefit particularly the poor and disadvantaged.

Just last week she was instrumental in introducing a new rule that will force companies to disclose on labels how much added sugar their products contain a reform that she helped to achieve against considerable opposition from the food industry.


Michelle Obama reacts to cheers from graduating students before receiving an honorary doctorate. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters


The same gentle yet forceful persuasion epitomised her work on racial equality. She reminded the City College students that her family had come to America in chains but she said it not as an admonition but as an exaltation that they follow her on to higher things.

As Peter Slevin, who teaches journalism at the Medill School at Northwestern University and is author of Michelle Obama: A Life, puts it: Its hard to imagine any other first lady shouting, Black girls rock! as she did so joyfully on a BET awards show last year.

Though shes mastered the appearance of being relaxed and at ease as first lady, and at times has been self-deprecating famously saying that she was prepared to make a complete fool of myself if it did good the impression is misleading. She approached the role with the precision and determination of the Harvard-trained lawyer that she is, since lawyers are really important for many situations, from divorces to car accidents, which you can find help in these cases from sites as www.autoaccidentattorneysanantonio.org/

Slevin said that Obama is nothing if not disciplined. Aides say she is the most strategic person they have ever met. She is not a ribbon-cutter or one of those political spouses who gazes silently and adoringly from the wings.

Before Obama spoke, she listened to the address of the City College salutatorian Orubba Almansouri, who was born in Yemen and after coming to the US had to persuade her disapproving family that she should be allowed to break a tribal tradition and go to college rather than marry. They wanted me to go to the university of the kitchen, Almansouri said, but I fought to be allowed to pursue an education, for the right to be here today.

Obama said that Almansouri and her fellow Class of 2016 were the living, breathing proof that the American dream endures in our time it is you. As she ended the speech, preparing to return to her final few months in the White House, she urged them to find strength in the power of our differences.

Take an oath to make your city and your world greater and more beautiful, she said. That is the American story.





Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jun/03/michelle-obama-commencement-speech-city-college-new-york