In a deeply personal response to outbreaks of racially motivated protests, President Barack Obama on Monday blamed a lack of opportunity in minority communities and harsher treatment of black and Hispanic men by police for fueling a sense of "unfairness and powerlessness."
The country's first black president called for a nationwide mobilization to reverse inequalities and said the cause will remain a mission for the rest of his presidency and his life. "There are consequences to indifference," Obama said.
Helping launch a foundation to assist young minorities, Obama said the catalysts of protests in Ferguson, Mo., and in Baltimore were the deaths of black young men and "a feeling that law is not always applied evenly in this country."
But he said a broader sense of hopelessness is at the root of the periodic eruptions in poor communities.
"We ask police to go into communities where there is no hope," he said. "Eventually, something happens because of the tension between society and these communities, and the police are just on the front lines of that."
The new organization, My Brother's Keeper Alliance, is an outgrowth of Obama's year-old My Brother's Keeper initiative, which has focused on federal government policies and grants designed to increase access to education and jobs.
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.”
While the Brother's Keeper effort predates the tensions in Baltimore that erupted after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, the significance of the new private-sector alliance has been magnified by the spotlight the riots in the city placed on low-income neighborhoods.
Over the past year, Obama has been called on to respond to what he last week referred to as the "slow-rolling crisis" of police relations with minority communities. The friction has been highlighted by Gray's death last month and Michael Brown's death last summer in Ferguson. Gray died after sustaining a spinal cord injury while in the custody of Baltimore police. Six police officers were charged last week in connection with his death.
Still, he praised police officers for putting their lives on the line and singled out Brian Moore, a 25-year-old New York City police officer shot in the head over the weekend while attempting to stop a man suspected of carrying a handgun.
"He came from a family of police officers," Obama said. "And the family of fellow officers he joined in the NYPD and across the country deserve our gratitude and our prayers, not just today but every day. They've got a tough job."
Obama alluded to his own youth raised by a single mother and said the plight of young minority men is personal to him.
"I grew up without a dad. I grew up lost sometimes and adrift, not having a sense of a clear path," he said, noting that he was lucky because he had an environment where people cared for him.
"Really that's what this comes down to, do we love these kids?" he said.
With high-profile names and an ambitious focus, the alliance is a possible building block for Obama's post-presidential pursuits. With less than two years left in Obama's presidency, the new institution would likely sustain its work well after he leaves the White House. But White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the new alliance wouldn't necessarily be the vehicle for what Obama chooses to do.
Earnest said decisions about who could give to the group and the reporting of donations would be made by the board of directors. He was responding to a question about whether the group's financing might spark some of the same controversies surrounding Bill and Hillary Clinton's family foundation.
"The White House will not be involved in determining what their fundraising policies should be," Earnest said. He said that the board would be "well aware of the priorities the president has placed on transparency."
The new alliance will be led by Joe Echevarria, the former chief executive of Deloitte, the giant accounting and consulting firm. The alliance already has obtained financial and in-kind commitments of more than $80 million from such companies as American Express, Deloittte, Discovery Networks, and Fox News parent company News Corp., the White House said.
The alliance board is a who's who of the sport, corporate and entertainment world. Singer songwriter John Legend is the alliance's honorary chairman; former Miami Heat star Alonzo Mourning is a member of the board. The alliance's advisory council will include former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Attorney General Eric Holder and Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, the mayors of Indianapolis, Sacramento and Philadelphia, as well as former NFL player Jerome Bettis and former basketball standout Shaquille O'Neal.
While in New York, Obama was also taping an appearance on The Late show with David Letterman and attending Democratic Party fundraisers.
Kuhnhenn reported from Washington D.C.