Throughout his tenure in the White House, President Obama has come under fire for seemingly distancing himself from Black concerns and failing to create programs that targeted the unique challenges of the African-American community.
But on Feb. 27 – with the specter of a re-election no longer hanging over him – Obama introduced an initiative aimed at elevating the lives of Black and Hispanic boys and young men called My Brother’s Keeper.
“The plain fact is there are some Americans who in the aggregate are consistently doing worse in our society; groups that have had the odds stacked against them in unique ways that require unique solutions; groups who’ve seen fewer opportunities that have spanned generations. And by almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century in this country are boys and young men of color,” said the president in one of the most emotional speeches of his presidency.
“Fifty years after Dr. King talked about his dream for America’s children, the stubborn fact is that the life chances of the average Black or Brown child in this country lags behind by almost every measure and it is worse for boys and young men,” he added.
According to statistics cited by the White House, African-American and Hispanic young men account for almost half of the nation’s murder victims each year and are more than six times more likely to be victims of murder than their White peers. By the time they reach fourth grade, 86 percent of African American boys and 82 percent Hispanic boys are reading below proficiency levels — compared to 54 percent of White fourth-graders. Add skyrocketing unemployment rates—last month jobless rates for African-American youth was estimated to be as high as 38 percent—, disproportionately high dropout rates and entanglement in the criminal justice system and the picture grows increasingly bleak.
My Brother’s Keeper, which the president previewed in this year’s State of the Union address, will create a task force to assess which federal policies are aiding young men of color and which are failing them.
The initiative also brings together businesses, foundations and charities, mayors and other officials who will invest $200 million over the next five years to implement community-based solutions to increase literacy and improve economic opportunities for young men of color. This investment is in addition to the $150 million these various organizations have already spent in these social justice efforts.
"When every member of our society has the opportunity to succeed, our communities are stronger and our nation is stronger," said Kenneth H. Zimmerman, director of U.S. Programs for the Open Society Foundations, in a statement. "We all have a stake in tapping the potential of young men of color, and we must work together to create more pathways for them to flourish."
The White House-led initiative will draw on the best practices of programs such as Youth Guidance’s Becoming a Man (B.A.M.), based in Chicago, which Obama visited last year.
The program tries to instill values of integrity and accountability and teaches the boys how to express their anger in a non-destructive manner and how to set goals, among other life skills, resulting in a 44 percent decrease in violent crime arrests, as well as a 23 percent increase in graduation rates among the participants compared to other at-risk young males, according to data collected by the University of Chicago Crime Lab.
“I have always been a decent student but I struggle with believing in myself. At B.A.M., I’ve been challenged to see a brighter future for myself,” said Christian Champagne, an 18-year-old senior at Hyde Park Academy and a member of B.A.M., during the White House event.
The idea for My Brother’s Keeper, the president said, originated after the verdict in the case of Trayvon Martin, whose parents were at the program launch, along with many other Black leaders and activists.
Martin, who was shot to death by a community watch volunteer in Florida, could have been his son or could have been him, Obama said at the time. And, he identified with many other young men of color faced with extraordinary challenges.
“I could see myself in these young men. And the only difference is that I grew in an environment that was a little more forgiving so when I made a mistake the consequences were not as severe,” he said.
Giving those young men the same opportunities—and support system—he had is the guiding force of this initiative he said, and it’s not just a moral imperative, but also an economic one.
“This is an issue of national importance. It is as important as any issue that I work on. It’s an issue that goes to the very heart of why I ran for president,” he said.
“Because if America stands for anything, it stands for the idea of opportunity for everybody, the notion that no matter who you are or where you came from or the circumstances in which you were born, if you work hard, if you take responsibility then you can make it in this country.”
Black leaders are lauding the president’s dedication to this issue. “After decades of ‘zero-tolerance’ policies, a preference for incarceration over rehabilitation, and other policies counterproductive to the development of our minority youth, I am grateful that the tide is turning,” stated Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who attended the event. “Fulfilling America’s promise that anyone who works hard and strives for excellence – no matter their race or upbringing – has been at the heart of my work since coming to the Congress during the Civil Rights Movement. I applaud the President’s initiative and I look forward to the work ahead, ensuring that all youth have the opportunity to succeed.”