Obama decries racial impact of COVID-19 deaths in national commencement speech

WASHINGTON—Former President Barack Obama on Saturday decried racial inequities revealed by the coronavirus pandemic and told graduating college students that the crisis has “torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they are doing.”

“A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge,” Obama said in a livestreamed commencement address to students graduating from the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities.

Obama delivered the speech, to be followed later in the day by a nationally televised address to high school graduates, as educational institutions across the country have been forced to cancel in-person graduation ceremonies to comply with stay-at-home and social-distancing orders during the public health emergency.

The speeches turned the national spotlight on Obama at a time when the former president is becoming a central figure in the 2020 presidential campaign. His vice-president, Joe Biden, has emerged as the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee and is embracing the Obama legacy.

And after largely keeping away from politics during the primaries, as for much of his post-presidency, Obama has lately aimed a series of withering critiques at Trump for his handling of the coronavirus crisis and other matters.

Trump has targeted his predecessor for a fresh round of attacks for an ill-defined scandal Trump has called “Obamagate.”

As the country’s first African-American president, Obama had a special message for Black college graduates Saturday about the challenge of confronting racial inequities exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis and spotlighted by the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was shot after being chased down by two white men in Georgia.

“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.”

Saturday night, Obama was also expected to address 2020 high school graduates in an hour-long broadcast carried by major networks and across social media platforms. The event was sponsored by XQ Institute, an education reform non-profit; the LeBron James Family Foundation; and the Entertainment Industry Foundation.

The idea of Obama giving a national commencement speech provoked a social-media clamour in April when a Los Angeles high school student, Eagle Rock High senior Lincoln Debenham, took to Twitter to petition the former president.

“Like most high school/college seniors, I’m saddened by the loss of milestone events, prom & graduation. In an unprecedented time, it would give us great comfort to hear your voice,” he tweeted at Obama, and drew 226,000 likes and more than 46,000 retweets.

An Obama aide said Saturday that the former president was “aware of and flattered by the viral campaign,” but that his commencement plans were made in response to a broader “deluge of requests from institutions, school systems and other organizations.”

“Given the unprecedented situation graduates are facing, the president wanted to send inspirational messages to them directly across several platforms,” the Obama aide said.

A third event is slated for June 6, when Obama and his wife, Michelle, will participate in a star-studded graduation celebration via YouTube. Other participants in the eclectic lineup include Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, former defence secretary Bob Gates and Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani women’s education activist who won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.

In his speech to Black college and university graduates, Obama did not mention Trump. But he urged graduates to assert leadership now that politics and the economy have been upended by the pandemic.

“With everything suddenly feeling like it’s up for grabs, this is your time to seize the initiative,” he said. “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.’”

He warned his audience against efforts to divide them against others seeking change.

“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.”

Obama began stepping up his profile in 2020 politics when, after refusing to back any of the many candidates for president, he endorsed Biden once the latter had effectively beaten all his primary opponents.

Obama, like the presidents before him, has mostly steered clear of directly attacking his successor, although he did criticize Trump and his policies as he campaigned for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections.

Obama’s recent critique of Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis came in a video conference with 3,000 former aides, a private speech that he doubtless knew would leak. He said the pandemic response had become “an absolute chaotic disaster when that mindset of ‘what’s in it for me?’ and ‘to heck with everybody else’ — when that mindset is operationalized in our government.”

Obama also criticized the Justice Department for asking a judge to drop charges against Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

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“Our basic understanding of the rule of law is at risk,” Obama said.

Trump, meanwhile, stepped up his attacks on Obama, advancing a conspiracy theory about efforts to block his 2016 election that he dubbed “Obamagate.” Trump has tried to portray Flynn — and himself — as victims of a “deep state” conspiracy involving a tangled cast of perceived enemies from the Obama administration.

And Trump has tried to link Biden to the alleged plot. The former vice-president’s campaign dismissed these attacks as a crackpot political ploy to distract from the president’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

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