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President Obama discusses coronavirus pandemic and looks to the younger generations in pair of commencement addresses

As high school students across the country are forced to miss out on in-person graduations this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, former President Barack Obama is urging the next generation to lead the world into a brighter future.

In a primetime address aired across multiple television networks and streamed online Saturday evening, the 44th President of the United States offered hope to the millions struggling in uncertain times, but also addressed the harsh reality of the pandemic. 

His remarks came as the number of coronavirus deaths in the United States have surpassed 88,000 and more than 36 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits in the last two months.

"This pandemic has shaken up the status quo and laid bare a lot of our country's deep-seated problems – from massive economic inequality to on-going racial disparities to a lack of basic health care for people who need it," he said. "It's woken a lot of young people to the fact that the old ways of doing things just don't work."

The former president did not name names, but he went on to make what appeared to be a veiled criticism of current leadership in the United States.

"Doing what feels good, what's convenient, what's easy – that's how little kids think," he said. "Unfortunately, a lot of so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs, still think that way – which is why things are so screwed up. I hope that instead, you decide to ground yourself in values that last, like honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others."   

Mr. Obama argued that if the world was going to "get better," it was going to be up to the graduating generation. He acknowledged the opportunity might be intimidating, but he also said he hoped it would be inspiring. 

"Because with so much uncertainty, with everything suddenly up for grabs, this is your generation's world to shape," he said.

Saturday night's commencement address was the former president's second of the day. Earlier Saturday, Mr. Obama addressed graduates of historically black colleges in an address that focused on systemic racism, touching on both the coronavirus pandemic and the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery.

Former President Obama congratulates HBCU graduates in virtual message 00:39

Mr. Obama said the handling of the pandemic has "fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they're doing. A lot of them aren't even pretending to be in charge."   

He also noted that "a disease like this just spotlights the underlying 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 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."

Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old black man, was shot and killed in February while jogging in Georgia. Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael, were not arrested and charged with murder until May, after cellphone video of the fatal shooting emerged.

As he did with the graduating high school students, Mr. Obama told the graduates that "if this world is going to get better, it's going to be up to you." He said they have "more roadmaps, more role models and more resources than the civil rights generation did" as well as better tools and technology than his generation. 

"The fight for equality and justice begins with awareness, empathy, passion, even righteous anger. Don't just activate yourself online," Mr. Obama said. "Change requires strategy, action, organizing, marching, and voting in the real world like never before."

His efforts to urge people to vote comes after he made a similar pitch on twitter, writing just the word "vote" on May 14. It has since been liked more than 1.7 million times. 

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