Former President Barack Obama sent some words of encouragement to graduating students in his commencement speech that streamed Sunday as part of YouTube’s Dear Class of 2020.
“It’s fair to say that your generation is graduating into a world that faces more profound challenges than any generation in decades,” he said, referencing the coronavirus pandemic, the hundred thousand lives lost and the impact on the economy. “No one can say for sure how much longer the crisis will last. A lot of that will depend on the choices we make as a country, but you know it will eventually end. Vaccines and treatments will emerge, the economy will begin to heal, and life will start returning to normal. And you’ll still have your whole life ahead of you.” He then turned to the anti-racism protests that followed the May 25 killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis who pleaded for air as a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck.
“What these past few weeks have also shown us is that the challenges we face go well beyond a virus, and that the old normal wasn’t good enough,” Obama said. “It wasn’t working that well in a lot of ways. The pandemic just brought into focus problems that have been growing for a very long time. Whether it’s widening economic inequality, the lack of basic health care for millions of people, the continuing scourge of bigotry and sexism or the divisions and dysfunction that plague our political system. Similarly the protests in response to the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Nina Pop aren’t simply a reaction to those particular tragedies. As heartbreaking as they are, they speak to decades worth of anguish and frustration over unequal treatment and a failure to reform police practices in the broader criminal justice system.”
Obama told the young people listening that these incidents, while “shocks to our system,” also “remind us that we can’t take things for granted.”
“We have to work to make things better,” he said. “They remind us that our individual well-being depends on the well-being of the community that we live in, and it doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick. It reminds you that our country and our democracy only function when we think not just about ourselves but also about each other. So as scary and uncertain as these times may be, they are also a wake-up call and they’re an incredible opportunity for your generation because you don’t have to accept what was considered normal before. You don’t have to accept the world as it is. You can make it into the world as it should be and could be. You can create a new normal, one that is fairer and gives everybody opportunity and treats everyone equally and builds bridges between people instead of dividing them.”
He continued: “Just as America overcame slavery in the Civil War recessions and depression, Pearl Harbor and 9/11 and all kinds of social upheaval, we can emerge from our current circumstances stronger than before, better than before. But as has always been true at key moments in history, it’s gonna depend on young people like you to go out there and rewrite what is possible.”
He went on to confess he feels it’s “a little unfair” to lay this “heavy burden” on one generation and lamented the fact that his own generation didn’t do more “to solve some of our country’s big problems so you didn’t have to.” However, he did note that this generation of graduates is more educated and technologically savvy than any before it; he added that they also are more “tolerant and empathetic, entrepreneurial and environmentally conscious” and have made efforts to make the world a better place in many ways, including taking part in the protests.
“To see so many of you participating in peaceful protests to see so many of you of every race and background raise up your voices on behalf of justice for all, well, it’s been unbelievably inspiring,” he said. “You make me optimistic about our future.”
Obama also gave them some advice, including taking on the values of “responsibility, fairness, generosity and respect for others that will make you part of the solution instead of part of the problem.”
He also encouraged them to help stop the spread of falsehoods and conspiracy theories that can permeate social media about topics like COVID-19 and racist stereotypes.
“Social media can also be a tool to spread conflict, division and falsehoods to bully people and promote hate,” he said. “Too often it shuts us off from each other instead of bringing us together partly because it gives us the ability to select our own realities independent of facts or science or logic or common sense. We start reading only news and opinions that reinforce our own biases. We start canceling everything else out. We let opinion masquerade as fact and we treat even the wildest conspiracy theories is worthy of consideration and the iron is that usually the people who are peddling falsehoods on the internet or social media are doing so for their own purposes either to sell you something or distract you from the real issues that matter you can change that.”
Obama also told young people not to lose hope.
“Even if it all seems broken, have faith in our democracy, participate and vote,” he said. “Don’t fall for the easy cynicism that says nothing can change or that there’s only one way to bring about change.”
He also said that it’s important to exercise one’s right to vote.
“In the midst of recent protests, I’ve noticed that there’s been some debates among young people about how useful voting is compared to direct action and civil disobedience in ending discrimination in our society,” he said. “The fact is we don’t have to choose. We need both peaceful protests and demonstrations. They are patriotic. they shine a light on injustice. They raise public awareness. They make the folks in charge uncomfortable in a way that’s healthy. After all we’re nation that was founded on protests. Eventually, though, your aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices and that only happens when we elect good people at every level who are responsive to our demands and that includes local offices like the office of mayor or the office of district attorneys that don’t get as much attention as a presidential race but have the most direct impact on issues like how communities are policed.”