Biden’s Honorary Doctorate, Commencement Address at Howard University Met With Backlash

Though many students celebrated President Joe Biden's appearance at Howard's graduation, others used it as an opportunity to make a statement about the treatment of Black Americans.
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Jessica Bryant is a higher education analyst and senior data reporter for BestColleges. She covers higher education trends and data, focusing on issues impacting underserved students. She has a BA in journalism and previously worked with the South Fl...
Published on May 15, 2023
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  • President Joe Biden on May 13 delivered Howard University's 2023 commencement address.
  • Multiple students turned their backs toward the president and held up signs in silent protest of his remarks.
  • Biden's past controversial remarks and political decisions impacting the Black community are at the heart of students' reasons for protesting.

President Joe Biden showed his support for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) on Saturday as he delivered Howard University's commencement speech.

Just prior to addressing the May 2023 graduating class, the university awarded him with an honorary doctorate of humane letters.

The president used his address to celebrate HBCUs and to denounce white supremacy, calling it "the most dangerous terrorist threat to our homeland."

Though many students were pictured cheering on the president's speech and seen expressing their excitement on social media, others used the highly photographed event to make statements about the treatment of Black Americans.

One student was photographed holding their graduation cap above their head with a sign that read, "Biden and Harris Don't Care About Black People."

Other students stood among the crowd of sitting graduates turning their backs to the president while holding signs that read, "A Black Child Was Lynched Yesterday! Jordan Neely" and "Stand Up Fight Back! Black People Are Under Attack."

Students protest as US President Joe Biden addresses the graduating class of Howard University during the 2023 Commencement Ceremony at Capitol One Arena on May 13, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Image Credit: Anna Rose Layden / Stringer / Getty Images News

Much of the backlash and silent protests the president faced were due to past comments he made about Black people long before running for and becoming president.

In earlier parts of Biden's political career, he was involved in decisions —- like his controversial 1994 crime bill — that left, what many consider, irreparable damage to the Black community.

Others questioned why Howard, an HBCU, would honor President Biden instead of a figure who resembles and resonates with the graduating class.

Further, some critics of his commencement address wondered why he would ask a graduating class consisting mostly of Black students to continue standing up against white supremacy rather than deliver that message to a predominantly white institution.

@ablake135 Like were there no other options? #howarduniversity #joebiden #xyzabc #commencementspeech #hbcu ♬ original sound - Asha 🌙

Despite opposition, Biden's speech to the new graduates stressed his continued commitment to HBCUs and plans to increase funding efforts for these institutions amid historic underfunding concerns that have come to light in more recent years.

He highlighted the "$6 billion and counting" that his administration has invested in HBCUs to create new research and prepare students for "jobs of the future in high-income fields."

He closed his address by commending the new generation of graduates and expressing his reverence for their talent and strength.

"You're part of the most gifted, tolerant, talented, best-educated generation in American history," he said. " ... You represent the best of us."