Vice President Kamala Harris packed a lot into her nearly 19-minute speech at Tennessee State University’s commencement ceremony on Saturday.
Along with praising graduates for their accomplishments, she acknowledged the long-standing struggles that many of those who historically attend Black colleges and universities and their families have faced.
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Harris also talked politics, warning graduates of the challenges she anticipates they will face, and that she hopes they might solve, in what she called the “unsettled” world they are entering.
Here are some of the most significant — and controversial — topics Harris mentioned.
The war in Ukraine
“It cannot be denied also that your class has traveled a stony road,” Harris told the class of 2022. The world you graduate into is unsettled, she added.
“We see this in Ukraine,” Harris said, referencing the now 10-week long war that began when Russia invaded the Eastern European country on Feb. 24. The war — and the Biden-Harris administration’s response to it has captured the nation’s attention .
Harris said Russia’s invasion threatens “international rules and norms.”
Kamala Harris on Roe v. Wade
She also referenced the fiery abortion debate that was reignited when news broke earlier this week that the US Supreme Court is on the verge of overturning the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion across the nation.
“Here in the United States, we are once again forced to defend fundamental principles that we hoped were long settled; principles like the freedom to vote, the rights of women to make decisions about their own body, what constitutes the truth,” she said as the sea of blue caps before her roared.
Harris rebuked Republican lawmakers and conservative justices earlier this week, when she argued access to abortion would be severely limited in almost half the country if Roe v. Wade gets overturned.
The gap between the rich and the poor
The economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the widening gap between the rich and the poor, with Black households typically falling further behind than their white peers — one type of inequality that seems to have always existed, Harris noted.
“The gaps between the rich and the poor, men and women, the global North and global South, have existed throughout our history. And through this pandemic, the gaps have become much larger. Globally, extreme poverty is on the rise as is extreme wealth,” she said.
Misinformation + the future of technology
Harris also argued that “what constitutes the truth” is under attack as rampant online misinformation further divides the political divisive country.
“What constitutes the truth, especially in an era when anyone can post anything online and say it is a fact?” Harris asked.
The White House pointed its finger at social media companies, accusing them of “killing people” for allowing misinformation about the pandemic to spread.
She said the class of 2022, who “grew up online,” will be tasked with building the future of technology
“Graduates, you stand on the brink of a new frontier, where we are building the platform to the next phase of technology… where we are defining those fundamental principles that will underpin the 21st century,” she said.
Voting rights + the climate crisis
Harris also told graduates that the nation is once again being “forced to defend fundamental principles that we hoped were long settled,” like the freedom to vote, and challenges that have never been settled, like the increasing threat of climate change.
Voting restrictions have cropped up in many states since Republicans and former President Donald Trump claimed the 2020 election was compromised, but Democratic legislation aimed at countering recent restrictive state measures stalled last year.
The Biden-Harris administration also promised to tackle climate change, with the president’s most recent budget proposal signaling a commitment to fight global warming, but Russia’s war with Ukraine also threatens global energy supplies.
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What she didn’t mention? student loan debt
One topic the vice president didn’t mention Saturday? Student loans.
More than 41 million borrowers haven’t had to make payments on their federal student loans since March 2020, and Biden recently extended the moratorium until Aug. 31, but the White House is facing mounting pressure to offer widespread debt relief to student loan borrowers.
Meghan Mangrum covers education for the USA TODAY Network — Tennessee. Contact her from her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.
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