Obama virtual commencement speech: “You’re all role models now … like it or not”

Former President Obama. Photo: Zahim Mohd/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Former President Obama delivered a virtual commencement speech to seniors graduating from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) on Saturday, as the pandemic pauses in-person celebrations.

Why it matters: This is the former president’s first public address to a national audience since the COVID-19 outbreak first struck the U.S. Obama used the speaking engagement to argue that “this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many folks in charge know what they’re doing.”

What he’s saying: 

But 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. And let’s be honest, a disease like this just spotlights the underlining 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 campus. We see it when a black man goes for a jog and some folks feel like they can stop and question and shoot him when he doesn’t submit to their question. 

Injustice like this isn’t new. 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. That it doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry sick. That our society and democracy only works if we think not just about ourselves, but about each other.

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. 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.

… 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 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.”

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