Former President Barack Obama, in separate virtual commencement speeches Saturday — delivered first to graduating students from historically black colleges and universities and then to high school students — criticized the country’s leaders for the way they’ve managed the coronavirus pandemic.
“More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many folks in charge know what they’re doing,” Obama during the “Show Me Your Walk HBCU Edition” special. “A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge. If the world’s gonna get better, it’s gonna be up to you.”
Obama further criticized the nation’s leadership in his speech to high school students during the “Graduate Together: America Honors The Class of 2020” program.
“All those adults that you used to think were in charge and knew what they were doing? Turns out that they don’t have all the answers,” Obama said. “A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions. So, if the world’s going to get better, it going to be up to you.”
In his speech to high school seniors, Obama gave three pieces of advice: Don’t be afraid, do what’s right, and build a community. While giving his second piece of advice, Obama took a final shot at current leaders in the United States.
“Doing what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy — that’s how little kids think,” Obama said. “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.”
Congrats to the high school Class of 2020, as well as to the teachers, coaches, and most of all, parents and family who’ve guided you along the way. Thanks for letting me be part of your big day! pic.twitter.com/RjYvHs2BhC
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) May 17, 2020
Saturday’s speeches were the first time Obama publicly addressed the nation since the pandemic, which has killed over 88,000 Americans and caused roughly 36 million people to go unemployed, hit the country.
During his speech to HBCU graduates, Obama outlined the problems that COVID-19 has brought to black communities. He also addressed the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man from Georgia who was shot and killed by a white father and son in February.
“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,” 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.”
Obama pointed out that these issues aren’t new, but what is different is the younger generations’ desire to change it.
“Injustice like this isn’t new,” Obama said. “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.”
Congratulations to the HBCU Class of 2020! Michelle and I are so proud of you. As you set out to change the world, we’ll be the wind at your back. Can’t wait to see what you achieve. https://t.co/PCsjkJJTXi
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) May 16, 2020
Toward the end of his HBCU address, the former president called on the graduates to step up and take control of the moment that awaits them.
“This is your time to seize the initiative,” Obama said. “Nobody can tell you anymore that you should be waiting your turn. Nobody can tell you anymore that this is how it’s always been done. More than ever, this is your moment.
“You’re all role models now, whether you like it or not,” Obama added.
Obama will address all graduating students June 6 in an event titled “Dear Class of 2020 Commencement Address.”