In a speech on Feb. 27, President Obama introduced the latest initiative from the White House, entitled “My Brother’s Keeper,” and signed a Presidential Memorandum establishing the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force. The goal of the Task Force is to help young boys and men of color to “have the opportunity to reach their full potential, contribute to their communities and build decent lives for themselves and their families,” according to whitehouse.gov.
Key goals of the initiative include improving access to healthcare and early childhood education for young boys in the hope of preventing them from falling behind. Additionally, as boys move through their adolescent years, greater efforts will be made to provide the support they need to stay in school and find good jobs. The Task Force will strive “to help determine which public and private efforts are working, [and] how the Federal government can support those efforts.”
The origins of this initiative lie with President Obama’s personal interest and desire to invest in boys and young men. Last February, the President visited with the young men of Chicago’s “Becoming A Man” (BAM) group. The organization helps young men with potential who have encountered obstacles on their way to success. The group also helps the teens with school work, and teaches them life skills and strategies to overcome the difficulties of growing up as a minority.
The President was joined by the boys of BAM during his speech as he shared his personal investment in their struggle: “I was a lot like them [growing up]. I didn’t have a dad in the house and I was angry about it. I made bad choices. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses and sometimes I sold myself short.”
In his speech, the President discussed the alarming statistic that while 42 percent of white boys are reading at a proficient level by the fourth grade, only 14 percent of African American boys and 18 percent of Hispanic boys are reading proficiently. While many statistics like these float around, the President remarked that as Americans, “we’ve become numb to these statistics…We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life, instead of the outrage that it is. These statistics should break our hearts, they should compel us to act.”
Lucas Wilson, associate professor of African American Studies and Economics, commented on the causes of the structural inequality that the initiative seeks to address. “Law and order and incarceration and strong policing of urban black neighborhoods is a kind of reorganization of Jim Crow structures of exclusion. I think when formal Jim Crow structures were voted down, culminating in the mid ’60s, we had two options: become a truly, racially integrated society, or pull back, retreat, reorganize and come at it again. We chose not to integrate,” he said.
An additional goal of the initiative is to reduce violence in schools and neighborhoods. According to whitehouse.gov, “African American and Hispanic 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.” This statistic, as stated by the President, is “a moral issue for our country.”
Another large issue for the U.S. is the absence of father figures, particularly in minority homes. As the President himself stated, growing up without a father figure had a major impact on his youth. This, combined with the problem of a broken prison system and mass incarceration, has created a cycle of underachievement.
“Young guys falling off the wagon and being absent has to end,” added Wilson. “We need to unlock the prison cells and let these guys go home. As long as our prisons and jails are the warehouses that they are for able-bodied, potentially productive citizens who are just absent from their families and their children’s lives and their communities, then we’re not talking about the problem, we’re not treating the cause.”
Wilson also discussed the trends of violence in relation to the ongoing debate about gun regulation in the U.S. “In addition to opening up the prisons and jails, as a society, we need to have the armageddon battle with the NRA, and they have to be taken down. We don’t need guns. If we’re going to have guns, we need to really become much more culturally sophisticated.”
“[T]he plain fact is there are some Americans who, in the aggregate, are consistently doing worse in our society…By almost every measure, the group that is facing the most severe challenges in the 21st Century, in this country, are boys and young men of color,” stated the President.
While the efforts of the Task Force are important, some have concerns about the absence of discussion surrounding young women of color, who experience a magnified oppression that stems from the intersection of their race and gender.
“I think that it’s jumping the gun looking at some program like this and immediately thinking it’s sexist,” said Courtney Brunson ’16, who is herself a woman of color. “I do think there [are] different issues black men versus black women are facing. For example, black women are the highest minority of women and ethnicity that are attending college, versus black men being the highest minority and gender that are incarcerated. So I think there [are] different issues that should be addressed in different ways, and I think it would be important for another program to help women of color [but] I still think [the Task Force is] a step in the right direction.”
The President ended his speech by directly addressing the young men of color surrounding him on the podium. “Part of my message, part of our message in this initiative is, ‘no excuses.’ We’ve got to help you knock down some of the barriers that you experience. That’s what we’re here for. But you have got responsibilities too. And I know you can meet the challenge, and many of you already are, if you make the effort. It may be hard, but you will have to reject the cynicism that says the circumstances of your birth or society’s lingering injustices necessarily define you and your future.”