George Yancopoulos, the billionaire cofounder and Chief Scientific Officer of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, created a stir over the weekend when he gave a graduation speech at Yorktown High School that touched on the recent murder of George Floyd, and called police “scapegoats” in larger issues of systemic discrimination. Parents and students of the New York suburb took to social media to complain about Yancopoulos’ speech, which was seen as divisive and inappropriate for a high school graduation.
At the end of his speech to graduates at a drive-in ceremony, Yancopoulos said, “I believe Black Lives matter, though I do not think it should be a crime to say, ‘All lives matter.'” He continued to say that while police brutality may be a trendy topic today, the police are “convenient scapegoats” of a larger systemic problem. Citing medical data that Black women are more likely to die in childbirth than white women, Yancopoulos said, “that’s a lot more innocent deaths than at the hands of the police.”
He also said that Black men were more likely to be killed by other Black men. “So if Black lives matter, what about all these Black lives?” he asked the audience. “Widespread hate and prejudice against all cops is just as wrong as hate and prejudice against any race or ethnic group.”
Members of the audience began to honk their horns during his speech, which Yancopoulos called “another act of cowardice.”
Yancopoulos, who has a net worth of $1.4 billion dollars, is leading the Tarrytown, NY-based biotech company’s development of treatments for Covid-19. Earlier this month, the company announced the beginning of its first clinical trial of an antibody cocktail aimed at both treating and preventing infection from the disease.
Yorktown superintendent Ron Hattar said in a statement that he believed Yancopoulos would be a good choice for graduation speaker given Regeneron’s efforts to find a treatment for Covid-19, and its close proximity to Yorktown. “However, unexpected comments were made in that address that do not align with the principles of the Yorktown Central School District.”
Meredith Brown, a member of the graduating class of 2020, says that she was furious at the political tone of the speech. “All the students are saying that this is bringing up division,” she says. She also says that as a Black woman, several portions of his speech were hard to hear. “It felt like he was trying to derail from the problem at hand,” she says, “and that was what really hurt me as well.”
Another Yorktown High graduating student, Tamara Bashjawish, says that she was “horrified” at the unprofessional nature of Yancopoulos’ speech. “I really hope that Mr. Yancopoulos would apologize to the seniors for making our graduation political and everyone divided,” she says.
After the graduation ceremony, parents and children took to social media to share their thoughts on the speech. While some parents agreed with the message of the speech, they did not think it was an appropriate topic at a high school graduation. Other parents in the school district disagreed with both the timing and the content of the speech. Jeremy Newberger, a film director and father of two children in the Yorktown school district, said that he was upset by the “false equivalency” of Yancopoulos’ speech. “Regeneron is a source of pride in Yorktown,” Newberger says, but the statistics that Yancopoulos cited “minimalize what Black people are experiencing” at the hands of police. Plus,”the graduates were hoping to be uplifted and rewarded,” Newberger says, “not alienated by some guy with an axe to grind.”
Several of the statistics that Yancopoulos cited during the speech have recently been found to be inaccurate or misleading. For example, Yancopoulos said that only nine unarmed Black men were killed by police in 2019. Though widely circulated by conservative personalities such as Charlie Kirk and Larry Elder, an investigation from USA Today concluded that the statistic is inaccurate.
The phrase “All lives matter,” which Yancopoulos said in his speech, also engenders a great deal of controversy. Scholars such as Rob Eschmann, an assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Social Work, argue that this and similar phrases contribute to a type of subtle and pervasive racism called “colorblind” racism, where people claim not to see differences between races. “‘All lives matter’ folks want there to continue to be silence about race, they don’t want to have to talk about race, and saying ‘all lives matter’ is a way for allowing racist violence against Black folks to continue,” Eschmann says.
Yancopoulos is one of several prominent executives that have come under fire in recent weeks for their views on the Black Lives Matter movement. Yancopoulos reportedly told the Westchester Journal News that the aim of his speech was to raise questions about the many issues that need solving beyond police bias. “I apologize if my remarks about these difficult and complex issues deteriorated from the Yorktown High School graduate’s experience,” he said.
This controversy isn’t the only one that Regeneron is facing right now. Last week, the company’s stock plunged after the Department of Justice filed a suit against Regeneron for using a charity foundation to pay “kickbacks” to help patients cover the cost of eye medication Eylea, an allegation that the company denies.
The company did not directly comment on Yancopoulos’ remarks, but in a statement to Forbes, a Regeneron spokesperson wrote, “As a company dedicated to saving and improving human life, Regeneron sees it as an extension of our mission to stand against racial injustice and discrimination of all kinds.”