Michelle Obama offered a scathing, barely veiled critique of Donald Trump on Friday as she delivered her final commencement address as first lady, warning graduates of City College in New York that while their diverse backgrounds are to be celebrated, they should beware of those who “build up walls to keep people out.” “They seem to view our diversity as a threat to be contained rather than as a resource to be tapped,” Obama said. “They 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 if anger and intolerance should be our default state rather than optimism and openness that have always been the engine of our progress.” Invoking her travels as first lady, Obama remarked that she has visited dozens of countries over the last seven years. “And I have seen what happens when ideas like these take hold. I have seen how leaders rule by intimidation, leaders who demonize and dehumanize entire groups of people often do so because they have nothing else to offer. And I have seen how places that stifle the voices and dismiss the potential of their citizens are diminished, how they are less vital, less hopeful, less free.” “Graduates, that is not who we are. That is not what this country stands for,” Obama continued, before alluding to Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan. “No, no, here in America, we don’t let our differences tear us apart. Not here. Because we know that our greatness comes from when we appreciate each other’s strengths, when we learn from each other, when we lean on each other, because in this country, it’s never been each person for themselves, no we’re all in this together. We always have been.”
In another allusion to Trump’s call to build a wall on the border with Mexico, Obama remarked, “here in America, we don’t give in to our fears, we don’t build up walls to keep people out, because we know that our greatness has always depending on contributions from people who were born elsewhere but sought out this country and made it their home.”
The first lady then ticked through a list of cultural and historical landmarks created by people who were not born in the United States, including Google, eBay, the artificial heart, the telephone, blue jeans, Russian-born Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” the Brooklyn Bridge and the White House.
The greatness of the United States, she mused, has “never come from folks who climbed the ladder of success or who happened to be born near the top and then pulled the ladder up after themselves.”
“No, uh-uh,” she continued, to applause. “Our greatness has always come from people who expect nothing and take nothing for granted, folks who work hard for what they have and then reach back and help others after them. That is your story, graduates, and that is the story of your families. And it’s the story of my family, too.”
The story of the U.S., the first lady continued, is one of “the son of Polish immigrants named Jonas Salk who toiled for years in a lab until he discovered a vaccine that saved countless lives. It’s the story of the son of Jamaican immigrants named Colin Powell who became a four-star general, secretary of state, and a role model for young people across the country.”
“And graduates, it’s the story that I witness every single day when I wake up in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my daughters, two beautiful black young women head off to school waving goodbye to their father, the president of the United States, the son of a man from Kenya who came here to America for the same reasons as many of you: to get an education and improve his prospects in life,” she remarked.
While the United States’ founders “never could have imagined this day,” Obama said, “all of you are very much the fruits of their vision.”