Washington – Barack Obama told this year’s graduates at historically black colleges and universities that the coronavirus pandemic has “torn back the curtain” on the idea that those in charge of the country know what they’re doing.
“A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge,” the former U.S. president said during the first of two virtual commencement speeches on Saturday.
Obama didn’t mention names, but his comments came after his recent blistering attack on President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic as “an absolute chaotic disaster” during a call with former members of his administration.
The comments to graduates of 74 colleges and universities focused on social justice and the importance of activism in the COVID-19 era, as well as the extent to which the pandemic had fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of minority Americans in cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit and Washington.
“Those that were struggling before — they’re hanging on by a thread,” Obama said.
“Let’s be honest — a disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country,” he said.
Obama also appeared to reference the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia in February, which recently has resulted in charges against a white father and son: “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.”
He also criticized those in power. “And on the big unfinished goals in this country, like economic and environmental justice and health care for everybody, broad majorities agree on the ends,” he said.
“That’s why folks with power will keep trying to divide you over the means. Because that’s how nothing changes. You get a system that looks out for the rich and powerful and nobody else.”
As graduates head out in the world, Obama said they’ll confront the “hard truth” that adults “don’t have all the answers. A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions.”
Obama was the “honored guest” at “Show Me Your Walk HBCU Edition,” recognizing HBCU graduates. Others on the bill included the rapper Common and NBA coach Doc Rivers.
He appeared in prime time with a ceremony celebrating this year’s 3.7 million high school graduates, according to the latest estimate from the U.S. Department of Education.
“This pandemic has shaken up the status quo and laid bare a lot of our country’s deep-seated problems — from massive economic inequality to ongoing racial disparities to a lack of basic health care for people who need it,” Obama said in the second address.
Many high school graduates, who finished the academic year confined to their homes, are potential first-time voters in the November election.
To reprise his message on what the virus has exposed, he said, “It’s also pulled the curtain back on another hard truth, something that we all have to eventually accept once our childhood comes to an end.”
Once again, Obama’s didn’t identify a specific person or group in his comments. “All those adults that you used to think were in charge and knew what they were doing? It turns out that they don’t have all the answers. A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions,” he said.
Obama’s second speech, part of an hourlong “Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020,” was carried by the four major TV networks and streamed on social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. That’s meant to be a consolation prize for millions of students whose home-town ceremonies were canceled because of the pandemic.
The former president was joined in the evening by celebrities including LeBron James and the Jonas Brothers.