During his speech, the president took the opportunity to denounce white supremacy, saying “White supremacy … is the single most dangerous terrorist threat in our homeland.” “And I’m not just saying this because I’m at a Black HBCU. I say this wherever I go” he added.
He also echoed rhetoric from his 2020 campaign, calling on the audience to “fight for the soul of the nation.”
“We’re living through one of the most consequential eras of our history with fundamental questions about the stake for our nation,” Biden told the crowd at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. “Who are we? What do we stand for? What do we believe? Who will we be? You’re going to help answer those questions.”
Biden criticized former President Donald Trump without naming him, referencing his statement that “there were very fine people on both sides” at the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, where a white supremacist was convicted of first-degree murder after driving his car into a crowd of protesters and killing a young woman.
“I don’t have to tell you that fearless progress towards justice often meets ferocious pushback from the oldest and most sinister of forces,” Biden said. “That’s because hate never goes away.”
Biden urged graduates to demand elected officials pass gun safety legislation and spoke about his debt relief plan.
“My student debt relief plan would help tens of millions of people, especially those on Pell Grants. Seventy percent of Black college students receive Pell Grants. Many of you, the savings would be significant and even wiping out student debt completely for some,” he said.
Biden added, “But this new Republican Party is dead set against it, suing my administration to stop you from getting student debt relief. The same opposition who received relief loans, I might add, to keep their businesses afloat during the pandemic—members of the Congress, worth thousands, even millions of dollars—most of which didn’t have to be paid back. Yet, they say it’s OK for them but not for you. I find it outrageous.”
Despite drawing strong cheers from the crowd, the president’s message was not entirely well-received.
According to NPR, about a dozen students stood with signs in protest of Biden’s appearance as he delivered his speech.
“A Black child was lynched yesterday!” one sign read, referencing the May 1 killing of 30-year-old Jordan Neely on a New York subway, while another student’s cap said, “Biden and Harris don’t care about Black people.”
Another read: “Stand up, Fight Back, Black People Under Attack.”
NPR reports that in a letter shared with the press, the students said they were “infinitely angered and exhausted by the many forms of ongoing white supremacist violence” in the U.S. The group, represented by the president of the local NAACP chapter, called on Biden to do more than just “ask for investigations and observe our struggle.”
“We as graduates stand united for change, for Black Lives globally,” the students said in a statement according to AFRO News. The news source reported that The White House had no comment.
Ahead of his speech, President Biden was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by Howard President Wayne A. I. Frederick. Frederick described Biden as “a favorite son of the capstone” with an “unmatched record for justice, empowerment, and peaceful advancement of humanity.”