President Joe Biden told graduates of a leading historically black university on Saturday that American history “has not always been a fairy tale” and that “racism has separated us for a long time.” But in the nation’s best days, he said, “quite a few of us have the guts and the heart to stand up for our best.”
As Biden spoke, more than a dozen cap-and-gown Howard University students stood with their backs to him holding handmade signs in silent protest of what they said were many forms of white supremacist violence.
In his speech, Biden described the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which he said helped galvanize him to run for president in 2020.
Hate “never goes away” and “silence is complicity,” Biden said.
“We know that American history has not always been a fairy tale,” Biden said, describing a constant “tug of war” between the idea that all people are created equal and “the harsh reality that racism has separated us for a long time”.
“But on the best of days, enough of us have the guts and heart to stand up for our best,” he continued. “To choose love over hate, unity over disunity, progress over retreat.”
Biden, who recently announced that he will run for a second term in 2024, said he came to Howard to “continue the work of redeeming the soul of this nation,” which was a theme of his 2020 campaign.
He told the graduates that they fuel his optimism for the future.
“You are part of the most gifted, tolerant, talented and well-educated generation in American history. That is a given,” she said. “And it is his generation, more than anyone else’s, that will answer America’s questions: who we are, what we stand for, what we believe, what we want to be.”
It was not clear if Biden was aware that several students had turned their backs on him while holding handmade signs protesting some of the injustices he mentioned in his speech. One sign named Jordan Neely, the New York City subway artist who died May 1 after another passenger strangled him.
The passenger, Daniel Penny, 24, a former Marine, turned himself in to police Friday to face a manslaughter charge. He was released pending trial.
“We as graduates are united for change, for Black Lives globally,” the students said in a statement.
Biden spoke after receiving an honorary Doctor of Letters degree.
The speech at Howard was the first of two commencement addresses Biden will deliver this year. It is scheduled to address graduates of the US Air Force Academy in Colorado on June 1.