YORKTOWN, N.Y. - During his keynote speech on Saturday, Dr. George Yancopoulos, co-founder and chief scientific officer of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, challenged Yorktown High School graduates to “question everything,” including the “popular narratives” behind social justice movements.
“I believe Black lives matter, though it should not be a crime to say all lives matter,” Yancopoulos said.
The Yorktown Heights resident said police are being “scapegoated” for much larger issues behind systemic inequities, citing high rates of deaths of Black people from diabetes and violence and during childbirth.
“So, if Black lives matter, what about all of these Black lives?” Yancopoulos asked rhetorically. “And what about the systemic inequity represented by these unjustifiable deaths? Why aren’t these numbers in the headlines or in the videos? Does anybody really believe the police are behind these unjustified deaths?”
He continued by saying, “Widespread hate and prejudice against all cops is just as wrong as hate and prejudice against any ethnic group.”
The graduates and their families, adhering to social distancing guidelines, were parked in their cars facing the stage located in the parking lot. At one point during the speech, somebody laid on their car horn for dozens of seconds, prompting Yancopoulos to stop talking.
“Whoever is honking their horn, you want to come up to the stage for a second if you have something to say?” Yancopoulos said, calling it “another act of cowardness.”
An adult started walking toward the stage but was stopped by school staff and police officers. Yancopoulos continued on with his speech for several more minutes.
“Here in America, we have systematically, over centuries, denied the path to success for so many Black children by denying them the very keys to the kingdom that I was so lucky to have,” Yancopoulos said, citing the destruction of Black families and a fading belief in the American Dream. “We have to admit that we have destroyed that belief for so many and we have to restore that belief and that dream.”
He challenged the graduates to seek solutions to complicated issues of race and inequality, and to “keep bias and prejudice from tearing us apart and scorching earth between us.”
“Instead we should be fighting to unite in our common humanity, realizing that we are not each other’s enemies, and that we are all in this together,” he said.
In a statement posted later Saturday, Dr. Ron Hattar, superintendent of Yorktown Schools, said he thought Yancopoulos would be a good choice as a speaker “in light of the pandemic” because Regeneron is working toward a treatment for COVID-19.
"However, unexpected comments were made in that address that do not align with the principles of the Yorktown Central School District," Hattar said. "After speaking to (Yancopoulos) moments ago, I understood that he intended to promote a message of unity, but his message did not do so.
"I apologize for any hurt caused by the keynote speaker's remarks," Hattar continued. "Graduation is intended to recognize the wonderful accomplishments of the Class of 2020 during their journey through the Yorktown Central School District, and anything that takes away from that recognition is not acceptable."