WaPo summarizes commencement speeches in which Obama criticizes nation’s leaders for bungled handling of coronavirus pandemic. If the world is going to get better, it’s up to you,” former president Barack Obama said in his address to graduating high school students on May 16.
Yes, he certainly did that, but more generally, he called on graduates to take charge and do things differently. Here are a few excerpts.
Former president Barack Obama criticized the nation’s leaders for bungling their handling of the coronavirus pandemic Saturday, accusing them in twin commencement addresses of not “even pretending” to be in charge and asking the wrong questions.
The comments came in a speech to high school graduates broadcast by major television networks and a similar streamed speech for graduates of 74 historically black colleges and universities across the United States, which also included his first public comments on the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man shot when two white men attempted to stop him while he was jogging near his hometown of Brunswick, Ga.
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.”
Heather Cox Richardson (Letters from an American) highlighted some spots in the Obama speeches.
The former president noted that we are in a frightening moment, when we are coping with a deadly pandemic and a terrible recession. But he also heralded the enormous possibilities of a time when all the cards have been thrown up into the air, waiting to be gathered up into new patterns.
Today former President Barack Obama gave two virtual graduation speeches. Midday, he spoke to the graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and in the evening, he spoke to the high school graduates of 2020 in an event called Graduate Together.
Both speeches were a striking contrast to the language we have become accustomed to hearing from today’s White House. And while they were directed at this year’s graduates, they mapped out more generally a new direction for America than the one we have taken since 2017.
He rejected the aggressive individualism that has defined America since the Reagan years. “[I]t doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick…. [O]ur society and democracy only works when we think not just about ourselves, but about each other.”
He placed America’s strength in community. “No one does big things by themselves. Right now, when people are scared, it’s easy to be cynical and say let me just look out for myself, or my family, or people who look or think or pray like me. But if we’re going to get through these difficult times; if we’re going to create a world where everybody has the opportunity to find a job, and afford college; if we’re going to save the environment and defeat future pandemics, then we’re going to have to do it together. So be alive to one another’s struggles. Stand up for one another’s rights. Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us — sexism, racial prejudice, status, greed — and set the world on a different path.”
He urged young people to change the world. “If the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you. 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,” the former president said, "this is your moment—your generation’s world to shape.”