“I’m reaching out to some of America’s leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing especially tough odds to stay on track and reach their full potential.” – President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama is determined to empower young black men. And today, America knows it, too. Obama chose Thursday to mark an historic breakthrough at the White House introducing “My Brother’s Keeper” – a new and unprecedented national initiative to uplift and empower every boy and young man of color who is willing to do the hard work to get ahead.
In one of the president’s most passionate speeches during his tenure in the White House, Obama looked boldly to the future to ensure that young men of African American and Hispanic heritage become an integral part of America’s success, prosperity and educational excellence.
“If you’re African-American, there’s about a one-in-two chance you grow up without a father in the house. If you’re Latino, you have about a one-in-four chance,” Obama said Thursday. “We assume this is an inevitable part of American life instead of the outrage that it is. It’s like a cultural backdrop for us in movies and television. We just assume — of course it’s going to be like that. But these statistics should break our hearts and they should compel us to act.”
Last year, Obama traveled to the South Side of Chicago and spoke to 16 black male students growing up poor, troubled, and some without fathers in their lives. The students, who attend Hyde Park Academy High School, are part of an anti-youth violence program called “Becoming A Man” (B.A.M.) that teaches at-risk students about violence prevention, accountability, self-determination, positive anger expression and respect for women. Obama was joined at the White House by several of the young black males who participate in B.A.M.
Valerie Jarrett, a Senior White House Advisor, said the president chose the Hyde Park Academy High School because the neighborhood is a mile from his home — a predominantly black community of poor residents, urban blight, and unemployed black men, but also an area that has seen progress in recent years, with newly constructed housing and banks. And meeting with young black men who are at-risk, Jarrett said, served as a profound moment in Obama’s presidency.
Jarrett said Obama personally identified with the young black men, in part, she said, because Obama, as a black man himself, was raised by a single mother who sometimes relied on food stamps to make ends meet.
“I explained to them that when I was their age, I was a lot like them,” Obama said. “I didn’t have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time,” he said. “I made choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm it could do … I could see myself in these young men.”
It was the initiative – and speech – that many black Americans have been waiting for. It’s the right decision at the right time in our nation’s history when young black men are being routinely ignored, marginalized, overlooked, insulted – and even gunned down in the streets for no legitimate reason.
“The group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in 21st century America is boys and young men of color,” Obama said in the East Room. “I believe the continuing struggles of so many boys and young men … this is a moral issue for our country. We need to give every child, no matter what they look like … the chance to reach their full potential.”
Perhaps Obama conjured the wisdom of Ralph Ellison, the noted black writer who became famous for his book “Invisible Man” and the powerful first line: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
Today, 62 years after Ellison penned those profound words, Obama, the nation’s first black president, desperately wants America to see young black men through his eyes: as productive members of our society. The president is using his White House bully pulpit to acknowledge that America has systematically disregarded young men of color, and particularly black men.
For decades, Obama aides said, opportunity has lagged behind for boys and young men of color. Young boys of color are disproportionately expelled from public schools, disproportionately locked up in America’s prisons and disproportionately refused jobs by employers who prefer to hire white workers. Among the challenges faced by the “My Brother’s Keeper” program: The jobless rate for black men older than 20 in January was 12%, compared with 6.6% for the nation as a whole.
There are more sobering statistics according to White House aides. Large disparities remain in reading proficiency, with 86 percent of black boys and 82 percent of Hispanic boys reading below proficiency levels by the fourth grade – compared to 58 percent of white boys reading below proficiency levels. Additionally, the disproportionate number of black and Hispanic young men who are unemployed or involved in the criminal justice system alone is a perilous drag on state budgets, and undermines family and community stability.
These young men are more than six times as likely to be victims of murder than their white peers and account for almost half of the country’s murder victims each year. On Thursday, Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum establishing the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, an inter-agency effort, chaired by the Assistant to the President and Cabinet Secretary Broderick Johnson, that will help determine what public and private efforts are working.
White House officials said the foundations supporting the initiative have already made extensive investments, including $150 million in current spending that they have already approved or awarded. On Thursday, the foundations announced that over the next five years they will invest at least $200 million to assist with job creation, early child development, parenting and parent engagement, 3rd grade literacy, educational opportunity and school discipline reform, and interactions with the criminal justice system.
“The challenges these young men face are of personal importance to him,” Jarrett said of Obama. “This is an initiative the president has been involved in every step along the way and he and the First Lady will remain active until the end of his presidency.”
This, in my view, is perhaps the president’s greatest legacy.
What do you think?