Obama unveils initiative aimed at helping underprivileged youth

Some criticize president for continuing to emphasize personal responsibility over problems of structural inequalities

President Barack Obama signs a presidential memorandum establishing the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, at the White House in Washington, Feb. 27, 2014.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Surrounded by young men hailing from the neighborhoods of Chicago where he started his career as a community organizer, President Barack Obama unveiled a White House initiative Thursday aimed at helping minority men overcome barriers and have a fair shot at attainment and success.

The initiative, called My Brother’s Keeper, has the White House partnering with foundations and businesses to find and implement solutions for young men in areas like early child development and school readiness, parenting, literacy, educational opportunity, school discipline reform and economic opportunity. The administration is also putting together an interagency task force to look at what strategies are working and how they could be expanded.

“This is an issue of national importance. It’s as important as any issue that I work on. It goes to the very heart of why I ran for president,” Obama said. “If America stands for anything, it stands for the principle that if you work hard, if you take responsibility, then you can make it in this country.”

Speaking about the disparities in education and attainment for young black men versus their white counterparts, Obama added, “We assume that this is an inevitable part of American life instead of the outrage that it is.”

The effort was seen in some corners as part of the evolution of the nation’s first African-American president, who for much of his presidency was reticent to talk about race or the specific burdens minorities bear. In the last year, however, Obama and Cabinet officials — most notably Attorney General Eric Holder — have taken up the issues of the disproportionate number of African-Americans who are incarcerated, the disenfranchisement of felons for minor drug offenses and disciplinary policies in schools that are enforced more harshly for minorities.

“It is a step in the right direction simply because there’s been not much done. There’s hasn’t been much that’s been done going back to before the Reagan administration,” said Dawud Walid, a black activist and political blogger in Michigan. “We’ve been deprived of these discussions and talks. This appears to be a big step. It is something.”

With his re-election campaign behind him and a spate of racially charged cases involving the murder of unarmed young African-American men dominating the headlines over the last year, Obama may feel both liberated and compelled to speak up before his time in the White House ends. The parents of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, two of the slain teenagers, were in attendance at the speech.

“It’s incremental progress. It’s a little step but one that I admire and commend,” said Leola Johnson, an associate professor and the chair of the media and cultural studies department at MacAlester College. “At least he’s not trying to be postracial anymore.”

There are few who doubt Obama’s sincerity in trying to tackle these complex issues.

Some of the young men present in the East Room for Obama’s announcement met with the president in Chicago last year when he sat in on a session of their mentoring program, Becoming a Man. Obama later invited the teenagers to the White House over Father’s Day Weekend.

“I explained to them I was a lot like them. I didn’t have a dad in the house, and I was angry about it, even though I didn’t realize it. I made bad choices. I got high,” Obama said, recounting that first meeting.

“The only difference was that I grew up in an environment that was a little bit more forgiving, so when I made a mistake, the consequences were not as severe.”

When Obama finished his story that day, one of the boys in the program had to double-check that the president of the United States was really telling his own story. “He asked, ‘Are you talking about you?’” Obama said. 

Nonetheless, Obama has faced backlash in his presidency when addressing black audiences for adopting what some say is a scolding tone and emphasizing the role of personal responsibility in helping communities of color climb up and out of their circumstances more than expounding on structural racism and inequalities.

At a commencement speech at Morehouse College, Obama told graduates, “When it comes to getting an education, too many of our young people just can't be bothered.” He drew heat too when telling a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus, “Take off your bedroom slippers. Put on your marching shoes. Shake it off.”

“That puts forward the false notion that black people in and of themselves have not had the desire to work hard and the current conditions of inequality of black America is due to our not working hard,” Walid said. “As much as black America supported Obama and wants him to address black issues, we don’t want to be talked down to by our president.”

Johnson noted that there is a futility in simply working harder and being more “respectable” for young black men trying to get ahead. “No matter how many young black men pull their pants up, that’s not going to increase the number of jobs available,” she said.

But Obama did not back off the theme Thursday, ending his speech with another tough-love message to the young men. “It may be hard, but you have to reject the cynicism that says the circumstances of your birth and the lingering injustices of society define you and your future,” he said. “No excuses.”

Materials released by the Obama administration describe My Brother’s Keeper as a program designed to “help every boy and young man of color who is willing to do the hard work to get ahead.”

For Frank Roberts, a part-time faculty member who has studied racial politics in the post-civil-rights era, that language grates.

“All of the rhetoric around race continues to be premised on this idea that there are these lazy people of color that have opportunities but are unwilling to pull themselves by their bootstraps, which is very different from what the reality is, which is people do not have opportunities to pull themselves up,” he said.

Roberts added that My Brother’s Keeper was akin to putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. “We know that there are a whole host of structural issues that the Obama administration has lagged behind on,” he said.

Johnson nonetheless noted that the president walks an almost impossibly fine line when confronting race-related issues and that he cannot solve all the structural ills plaguing young black men, especially with a reluctant Congress.

“My frustration is not with Obama. It’s with the country,” she said. “Sometimes it makes me angry and passionately angry when people expect Obama to do things that they haven’t expected from other presidents.”

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