NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) – Barack Obama told this year’s graduates at historically black colleges (HBCUs) 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 president said during a virtual commencement speech, the first of two Obama will deliver on Saturday (May 16).
Obama didn’t mention names, but his comments came after his recent blistering attack on President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic as “an absolute chaotic disaster” during a call with former members of his administration.
The comments to graduates of 74 HBCUs focused on social justice and the importance of activism during the Covid-19 era, and the extent to which the pandemic had fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of minority Americans in cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit and Washington DC.
“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 criticised 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 “honoured guest” at “Show Me Your Walk HBCU Edition,” recognising HBCU graduates.
Others on the bill included the rapper Common and NBA coach Doc Rivers.
He will appear next in prime time with a ceremony celebrating this year’s high school graduates, many of whom finished the academic year confined to their homes.
The four major US networks will carry Obama’s hour-long “Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020,” at 8pm EDT, a consolation prize for millions of students whose home-town ceremonies were cancelled because of the pandemic.
The former president will be joined in the evening by celebrities including LeBron James, Team USA soccer star Megan Rapinoe and the Jonas Brothers.
The virtual event will also stream on social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.