In his first major national speech since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, former President Barack Obama delivered an inaugural address for graduates from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) on Saturday. And much of his advice to encourage students to become leaders also became an indictment of the Trump administration’s management of the pandemic.
“More than anything, this pandemic has finally torn open the curtain on the idea that so many of the executives know what they are doing,” Obama said in a video that is streamed online as part of “Show Me Your Walk H.B.C.U. Edition” virtual opening. “Many of them don’t even pretend to be in charge.”
Overall, Obama struck his trademark tone of calm and measured optimism and used the country’s current economic and public health crises as springboards to discuss its usual political themes, including the importance of organizing communities and finding a common ground outside the comfort zones. And he also highlighted the unique injustices young black people like Ahmaud Arbery face at a time when some political leaders claim that coronavirus is a kind of equalizer.
“Let’s face it, an illness like this only shows the underlying inequalities and additional burdens that black communities in this country have faced,” he said. “We see it in the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on our communities, just as we see it when a black man goes jogging and some people feel they can stop and question him if he doesn’t question them . “
Obama further told graduates that challenges like these require them to be needed as active citizens who can deal deeply with the world in times of crisis. “No generation is better positioned to be warriors for justice and to recreate the world,” he said.
And to encourage his audience to push for change, the former president gave a thinly veiled critique of Trump’s divisive political style.
“So instead of saying, ‘What’s in it for me?’ Or ‘What does it bring to my community and to deal with everyone’, stand up and join everyone who is struggling – be it immigrants, refugees, the rural poor, the LGBTQ community, low-income workers of all backgrounds, women who are so often subject to their own discrimination and burdens and do not get the same pay for equal work, “Obama said.” Beware of people, whether they are white or black, Asian, Latino or Indian. As Fannie Lou Hamer once said, ‘Nobody is free until everyone is free.’ “”
In some ways, the comments were a more polished version of comments Obama recently made in a private conversation with members of the Obama Alumni Association when he sharply criticized Trump’s treatment of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was an absolutely chaotic disaster,” Obama said during the call, including thousands of people he had worked with in the past. “What we’re fighting against are these long-term trends in which selfish, tribal, divided, and perceiving others as an enemy – that has become a stronger impulse in American life.”
But while Obama’s comments on Saturday were less harsh than the criticisms he made during his call, they were still a call to action.
“And on the major, as yet unfulfilled, goals in this country, such as economic and environmental justice and health care for all, the vast majority agree. Therefore, those in power will continue to try to divide you among resources, “Obama said at the end of the opening speech. “Because nothing like that changes. You get a system that looks out for the rich and powerful and no one else. So expand your moral imagination, build bridges and grow your allies as you build a better world.”
The speech will not be Obama’s last speech in 2020 – his The next the graduation speech for high school seniors will take place on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET, and he will deliver a third speech to the 2020 graduates on June 6 at 3 p.m. ET.