'My Brother’s Keeper': Obama confronts obstacles facing young men of color

President Obama has become increasingly direct in addressing the problems of minority youths. Thursday he announces 'My Brother's Keeper,' an initiative that touches him deeply and personally. 

M. Spencer Green/AP
President Barack Obama speaks during an appearance at Hyde Park Academy, Feb. 15, 2013, in Chicago.

From the earliest days of his presidency, Barack Obama has faced high expectations from African-American leaders – and a persistent question: What about a black agenda?

High unemployment. High incarceration rates. High dropout rates. These and many other pathologies have long plagued communities of color. But for the nation’s first African-American president, dealing with the “black” issue has been tricky. “I’m not the president of black America,” President Obama has said many times. “I’m the president of the United States of America.”

But increasingly, Mr. Obama has been addressing minority issues more directly. On Thursday, he will focus on the challenges of young black and Latino men when he unveils “My Brother’s Keeper” – an initiative named for a biblical phrase he uses regularly, conveying a belief that society must help those facing challenges. It aims to keep young minority men out of what is often called the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

“Across the country, communities are adopting approaches to help put boys and young men of color on the path to opportunity and success,” says Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama. “The president intends to build on that work.”

The initiative holds deep meaning for the president, and is one that he and the first lady will remain committed to after the end of his presidency, Ms. Jarrett says.

“Not only does the president personally identify with many of the challenges these young men face – as a man of color himself, whose life was not always on the right track, and the son of a single mom who at times depended on food stamps to get by – but he also, as president, sees the larger picture,” Jarrett said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

Obama will sign a memorandum establishing the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, a federal interagency effort to be chaired by Broderick Johnson, assistant to the president and Cabinet secretary. The task force will identify best practices and how to expand upon them; how federal policies and programs can best support these efforts; and how to involve state and local officials, the private sector, and philanthropies more effectively.

The task force will also create an administration-wide “What Works” Web portal to publicize successful programs.

Obama will be joined in the East Room of the White House by foundation heads who have pledged to invest $200 million over five years in helping young men of color, on top of the $150 million they are already spending. Business and political leaders will also join the president, including former Gen. Colin Powell, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Among the areas of focus are early childhood development and school readiness; parenting and parent engagement; literacy by third grade; and school discipline reform. Businesses will buttress those efforts with internships, mentorships, and help in designing classroom curricula that prepare young people for jobs.

But when Obama puts out his fiscal year 2015 budget next week, there won’t be a line item called “My Brother’s Keeper.”

“In fact, explicitly, the president will say this is not an issue of a big federal program,” says a White House official. “That’s not the solution here. There are plenty of dollars that are available in the marketplace. But what we can do is make sure we are tailoring our programs that are already in place to better serve the needs of this segment of the population that is underserved.”

Some observers call the initiative symbolic, precisely because it does not entail an infusion of new federal cash.

“It’s symbolic, in the sense that it says, ‘I know and I care and I’m going to do something about it within the limited means that I have,’ ” says Robert Smith, an expert on African-American politics at San Francisco State University. “He probably can do that without getting too much flak from the right.”

Administration officials say My Brother’s Keeper is not just symbolic, and that Thursday’s announcement is only the beginning. After 90 days, the foundations are to report back with a strategy for coordinating their investments. And Obama will continue to speak out about addressing the challenges faced by young men of color.

Last month, the president gathered university presidents and nonprofit leaders at the White House to discuss how to expand college access for low-income students. He has also pledged to work with states in expanding access to pre-kindergarten in his last two State of the Union addresses.

In some areas, federal agencies have already made policy changes aimed at keeping boys in school and on a path to employment. In January, the Departments of Education and Justice issued guidance to school districts to back away from “zero tolerance” policies on school discipline, which have disproportionately affected minority students, especially boys. Discipline issues can often be addressed within a school and not involve the juvenile justice system, experts say.

One of the programs that will be represented at Thursday’s event – Becoming a Man (BAM), which operates mostly in public schools in Obama’s home town of Chicago – is especially near to the president’s heart. A year ago, Obama spent time with a group of high school boys in the BAM program at Hyde Park Academy High School, and by many accounts, was moved by the experience. Around Father’s Day, the boys visited him at the White House.

BAM is a counseling, mentoring, violence prevention, and educational enrichment program for at-risk males in Grades 7 through 12. It addresses what Youth Guidance – the organization over it – sees as the systemic causes of violence by focusing on six core values: integrity, accountability, self-determination, positive anger expression, visionary goal-setting, and respect for womanhood.

Molly Hansen, chief development officer at Youth Guidance, sees Obama’s new initiative as vital.

“My Brother’s Keeper will call attention to the fact, first of all, that these are not throwaway kids,” she says. 

A recent study by the University of Chicago Crime Lab found that BAM reduced violent crime arrests by 44 percent, reduced weapons crime and vandalism by 36 percent, and reduced the likelihood of attending school in a juvenile justice setting by 53 percent. It also found that BAM increased future graduation rates by between 10 and 23 percent.

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