Former Vice President Joe Biden speaking at commencement exercises Saturday at Morgan State University, decried the decline of "civilized discourse" during the election campaign last year and urged graduates to stay engaged in the world.
Speaking to more than 700 graduates and their families at the historically black university in Baltimore, Biden touched on his eight years as vice president under Barack Obama, his personal life, the 2016 election and the current political climate.
"This past election cycle churned up some of the most ugly realities," he said. "Civilized discourse and real debate gave way to a coarseness in our rhetoric."
During the campaign, he said, "we saw just how much of a grip racism and sexism still has on America."
"Racism was embraced as a political tool on the national level," he said. "I thought we had passed the days where it is acceptable for politicians to say out loud, to bestow legitimacy on hate speech and fringe ideologies."
While the climate might discourage some, Biden urged the graduates not "to write off the system as irredeemably flawed."
Biden said the attitudes are "temporary" and not tolerated by the country.
Biden, who declined to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2016 after the death of his son Beau, said he "may very well" run in 2020.
He opened the speech saying he first learned of Morgan State's reputation as a young lifeguard on the east side of Wilmington, Del.
"I was the only white boy. You think I'm kidding, but I'm not," he said to laughter. When the other lifeguards spoke about their college plans, he said, Morgan State often came up.
"I grew up feeling self-conscious I didn't go to an HBCU," he said, and drew cheers.
He closed with advice: He urged graduates to strive to find a balanced work life, and find fulfillment in in what they do. He spoke about cherishing time with loved ones, even when work might take over. He spoke about his first wife and young daughter, who were killed in a car crash shortly after he was first elected to the Senate in 1972.
Biden also spoke about the pressure to succeed and the temptation to do what others think is right. He urged the graduates to "follow what you feel in your gut. That's your North Star."
He told them to "engage the world around you, because you will be more successful and happy, and because that's how progress happens."
Biden got laughs acknowledging the internet commentary poking fun at his friendship with Obama.
"I know all those memes you guys did," he said. "It's the truth, we're the closest of friends."
Haneef Hardy, 23, who earned a bachelor's degree in sociology, said the speech was "motivating."
The Philadelphia native, the first in his family to graduate from college, said he was ready to "give back to the community."
Hardy has been teaching first grade at Margaret Brent Elementary School in Charles Village. He said he's considering several jobs. He wants one in which he can "make a difference."
Several students who were killed last year were granted degrees posthumously.
Charles McGee, 23, who was fatally shot in November, was granted a degree in political science. Marcus Edwards, 21, who was stabbed to death in September, was granted a degree in social work. Tyronn Hodges, who was shot to death in Northeast Washington in February, was granted a degree in business administration.
Biden; Sylvia Brown, a Baltimore philanthropist; Sheldon Goldseker, chairman of the board of directors for the Goldseker Foundation; and Morgan alumna April Ryan, White House correspondent for the American Urban Radio Networks, received honorary doctorates.