Obama first spoke to the unusual circumstances this year’s graduating students are having to endure because of the ongoing pandemic, telling them, “Even if half this semester was spent at Zoom University, you’ve earned this moment.”
— UNCF (@UNCF) May 16, 2020
The former president told the 2020 class, “You should be very proud. Everybody who supported you along the way is proud of you — parents, grandparents, professors, mentors, aunties, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, second cousins, cousins who you aren’t even sure are cousins. Show them some gratitude today.”
Obama then pivoted from lightheartedly speaking about school rivalries sharing this special time in their lives together virtually, and spoke about how the present abnormal circumstances have increased the “burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country.” Obama also mentioned the recent killing of Ahmad Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was gunned down while jogging after two armed white men chased him down in Georgia.
“These aren’t normal times. You’re being asked to find your way in a world in the middle of a devastating pandemic and a terrible recession. The timing is not ideal,” Obama said. “And 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. 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 then acknowledged that although “injustice like this isn’t new,” what is new is this generation’s awareness “to the fact that the status quo needs fixing.”
“Injustice like this isn’t new,” he 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; and that it doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick; that our society and democracy only work when we think not just about ourselves, but about each other.”
Then the former president went right after the current occupant in the White House, saying the coronavirus crisis has “torn back the curtain” and exposed the Trump administration’s knowing lack of leadership.
“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. A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge,” Obama said.
The former president then urged the HBCU graduates to “seize the initiative,” adding, “this is your moment — your generation’s world to shape.”
“If the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you,” he said. “With everything suddenly feeling like it’s up for grabs, this is your time to seize the initiative. Nobody can tell you anymore that you should be waiting your turn. Nobody can tell you anymore, ‘This is how it’s always been done.’ More than ever, this is your moment — your generation’s world to shape.”
To no one’s surprise, the former president ended the address with a message of hope.
“So many of us believe in you. I’m so proud of you. And as you set out to change the world, we’ll be the wind at your back.”
You can see Obama’s remarks, beginning at the one-hour-and-47-minute mark in the video below: