Obama did not mention his successor, President Trump, by name. But the comments echoed criticism of the Trump administration that Obama leveled last month in a video endorsement of former vice president Joe Biden. Obama said then that the pandemic had shown that “having leaders who are informed and honest and seek to bring people together” matters.
“More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing,” Obama told college and university graduates on Saturday. “A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”
In the speech to high school students, he went further by saying it had revealed not only that many adults lack the right answers, they are not even asking the right questions.
“Do what you think is right,” Obama told the students. “Doing what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy — that’s how little kids think. Unfortunately, a lot of so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs, still think that way — which is why things are so screwed up.”
Obama mentioned racial, gender and economic inequity in both addresses, saying the current economic and health crises had revealed much about the country.
“A disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country,” Obama said. “We see it in the disproportionate impact of covid-19 on our communities, just as we see it when a black man goes for a jog and some folks feel like they can stop and question and shoot him if he doesn’t submit to their questioning.
“Injustice like this isn’t new,” Obama continued. “What is new is that so much of your generation has woken up to the fact that the status quo needs fixing, that the old ways of doing things don’t work.”
The first speech capped off a two-hour live-streamed event called “Show Me Your Walk, HBCU Edition,” which included appearances from HBCU alumni, actors and actresses, NBA players and owners, corporate CEOs, and artists. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), a Howard University graduate, made an appearance. Comedian Kevin Hart hosted.
But the main event was Obama’s commencement address, which was streamed by ESSENCE Studios on YouTube and social media with the event’s sponsor, Chase Bank, in partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the United Negro College Fund, the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, the NBA, Paul Quinn College, Howard University and JPMorgan Chase’s Advancing Black Pathways Initiative.
Hours later, he appeared in a program for graduating high school seniors broadcast by the major television networks.
After largely avoiding the spotlight for the last three years, Obama has promised to play a more prominent public role in the coming months as a campaign surrogate for Biden. Trump has also sought to elevate Obama back into the public conversation by highlighting the role his administration played in reviewing foreign intelligence intercepts after the 2016 election that picked up Trump’s future national security adviser speaking by phone with the Russian ambassador.
Obama has declined to respond directly to those attacks from Trump, posting a tweet instead Thursday with a single word: “Vote.”
In both addresses, Obama opened with a nod to the less-than-ideal circumstances under which members of the Class of 2020 finished off their educations. Restrictions on large gatherings and mandates of physical distancing forced schools and universities across the country to shut down in-person classes this spring and transition to online learning.
Obama said the HBCU graduates had still “earned this moment,” even if they spent the second half of the semester on “Zoom University.” He joked with the high school students that many would not have looked great in a mortarboard cap typical of traditional graduations.
“As much as I’m sure you love your parents, I’ll bet that being stuck at home with them and playing board games or watching ‘Tiger King’ on TV is not exactly how you envisioned the last few months of your senior year,” he said.
Obama said that now more than ever, HBCU graduates have the tools they need to seize their power to make change. Obama called on the 2020 class to be “bold” and have a “vision that isn’t clouded by cynicism or fear.”
“No generation has been better positioned to be warriors for justice and remake the world,” Obama said, adding that he would not tell the graduates how to use their power but only offer three pieces of advice.
First, he challenged them to take their advocacy beyond online activism and engage with grass-roots organizations. Next, he told the graduates they “can’t do it alone” and encouraged them to find “allies in common cause.”
“Rather than say what’s in it for me or what’s in it for my community and to heck with everyone else, stand up for and join up with everyone who’s struggling — whether immigrants, refugees, the rural poor, the LGBTQ community, low-income workers of every background, women who so often are subject to their own discrimination and burdens and not getting equal pay for equal work; look out for folks whether they are white or black or Asian or Latino or Native American,” Obama said.
On June 6, Obama is scheduled to deliver a third address to graduating students across the world in another simulcast event, joined by former first lady Michelle Obama for a global virtual commencement celebration.