President Barack Obama launched the most personal program to date when on Thursday afternoon, Feb. 27, 2014 he announced in the White House’s East Room another part of his economic opportunity program, called “My Brother’s Keeper,” aimed at helping to decrease the disproportionately high unemployment rates and socio-economic challenges African-American and Hispanic men face and giving them the tools to succeed and reach their “full potential.” The president then signed an executive order putting the program in motion, where the government is going to find and determine which present programs have worked to help the youth from education to justice initiatives and then expand them. Philanthropies and businesses are working with the government and have pledged funds for the initiative.
The initiative is called “My Brother’s Keeper” with the tag line and subheading “Creating opportunity for boys and young men of color” according to the White House the “new initiative [is] aimed at helping young men and boys of color facing tough odds reach their full potential. President Obama emphasized in his remarks; “By almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century, in this country, are boys and young men of color.” The initiative will bring together “private philanthropies, businesses, governors, mayors, faith leaders, and nonprofit organizations that are committed to helping them succeed.”
The initiative is part of the president’s economic opportunity program helping to lift up low-income Americans to the middle class and give them an opportunity for success. As Obama explained; “My administration’s policies — from early childhood education to job training, to minimum wages — are designed to give a hand up to everybody, every child, every American willing to work hard and take responsibility for their own success. That’s the larger agenda.”
Obama indicated how important the My Brother’s Keeper initiative is to the country and personally as president, as well as the importance of the greater economic opportunity program, stating; “This is an issue of national importance. It’s as important as any issue that I work on. It’s an issue that goes to the very heart of why I ran for President, because if America stands for anything, it stands for the idea of opportunity for everybody. The notion that no matter who you are, or where you came from, or the circumstances into which you are born, if you work hard, if you take responsibility, then you can make it in this country. It doesn’t take that much, but it takes more than we’re doing now.”
The White House noted that “General Colin Powell, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Adam Silver, Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Congressman Ruben Hinojosa, Magic Johnson” were in attendance at the announcement event, all have already created or involved programs that have been helping minority youth succeed. Additionally Fox News; Bill O’Reilly and Rev. Al Sharpton were at the event. President Obama delivered his remarks and signed the executive order surrounded by minority youth participating in University of Chicago’s “Becoming A Man” (BAM) program a model for success.
The Presidential Memorandum Obama signed at the event created a task force and directing “the federal government to determine the best methods to improve the odds for young men of color” and then “how to expand upon them.” Assistant to the President and Cabinet Secretary Broderick Johnson has been chosen to work with the foundations over the “next 90 days” to parse through existing programs, and come to conclusions. Tangibly the results will lead to modifications to “Federal policies, regulations, and programs,” create both an online portal for the administration about what programs work, and a “public website” under the Department of Education.
The president was visibly emotional during his remarks, and according to the White House much of his speech was “improvised” mostly the personal elements. The President deems himself the best role model to the African American and Hispanic youth he is trying to reach, but he also wanted to express in his remarks just how much he was like them talking about his own past growing up without a father, taking drugs, and indifference and problems in schools and his situation could have turned out much different had it not been more and more understanding and forgiving environment that gave him the chances to rectify his mistakes. This is the first time the president has been so open at a public event and in his remarks about his past, although the facts have not been a secret.
President Obama recounted his own story growing up not that dissimilar to the youth his initiative will help; “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. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short.”
The president is against the zero-tolerance policies in schools where in higher percentages of minority youth are being suspended and not given the chances they need to rectify their behavior leading for many to a life of crime. Obama thinks the youth need the chances he had to straighten out their lives. The president explained; “because there are ways to modify bad behavior that lead to good behavior — as opposed to bad behavior out of school… and “by building on that work, we can keep more of our young men where they belong — in the classroom, learning, growing, gaining the skills they need to succeed.”
Obama related his own situation; “The only difference is 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. I had people who encouraged me, not just my mom and grandparents, but wonderful teachers and community leaders. And they pushed me to work hard, and study hard, and make the most of myself. And if I didn’t listen, they said it again. And if I didn’t listen, they said it a third time – and they would give me second chances and third chances. They never gave up on me, and so I didn’t give up on myself.”
The speech was also filled with statistics demonstrating just how much these youth are at risk. President Obama listed the statistics that are stacked against minority male youth; “Fifty years after Dr. King talked about his dream for America’s children, the stubborn fact is that the life chances of the average black or brown child in this country lags behind by almost every measure and is worse for boys and young men.” They fall behind at a young age educationally, only 14 percent are proficient in fourth grade reading skills, by the time they take the National Assessment of Educational Progress. According to the White House and the president’s address; “Youth who cannot read “proficiently” by third grade are four times less likely to graduate high school by 19.”
The educational problems lead to a disinterest in school resulting in getting more in trouble with school authorities, 42 percent of African American youth have been “suspended or expelled.” After getting in trouble in school, they then graduate to greater problems with the youth criminal justice system, where African American youth only represent “16 percent of the youth population, they represent 28 percent of juvenile arrests, and 37 percent of the detained population.” In general black males represent “43 percent of murder victims,” but are only 6 percent of the total population.
Obama says that the statistics should prompt action, but most Americans just consider them normal, part of the American fabric and culture; “The worst part is we’ve become numb to these statistics. We’re not surprised by them. We take them as the norm. We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life, instead of the outrage that it is. But these statistics should break our hearts, and they should compel us to act.”
President Obama described that all these problems growing up lead minority men “to be “disconnected” — not in school, not working.” Obama expressed that it is important “to reconnect them. We’ve got to give more of these young men access to mentors. We’ve got to continue to encourage responsible fatherhood. We’ve got to provide more pathways to apply to college or find a job. We can keep them from falling through the cracks, and help them lay a foundation for a career and a family and a better life.”
President Obama indicated in his remarks the government can only play a limited role, whereas a two parent family actively involved in their children’s lives is the best preventative measure. Obama expressed; “[I]n this effort, government cannot play the only — or even the primary — role. We can help give every child access to quality preschool and help them start learning from an early age, but we can’t replace the power of a parent who’s reading to that child. We can reform our criminal justice system to ensure that it’s not infected with bias, but nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son’s life.”
Everybody in these children’s lives as they grow-up need to get involved to provide them the opportunity for successful, it is a group effort. Obama emphasized; “In other words, broadening the horizons for our young men and giving them the tools they need to succeed will require a sustained effort from all of us. Parents will have to parent — and turn off the television, and help with homework. Teachers will need to do their part to make sure our kids don’t fall behind and that we’re setting high expectations for those children and not giving up on them. Business leaders will need to create more mentorships and apprenticeships to show more young people what careers are out there. Tech leaders will need to open young eyes to fields like computer science and engineering. Faith leaders will need to help our young men develop the values and ethical framework that is the foundation for a good and productive life.”
Although President Obama expressed that everyone has to pitch in, the youth themselves have to take control of their lives for the initiative to work, the president declared; “No excuses. We all have a responsibility to help provide you the tools you need. We’ve got to help you knock down some of the barriers that you experience. That’s what we’re here for. But you’ve got responsibilities too. And I know you can meet the challenge, and many of you already are, if you make the effort.”
Calling on all Americans regardless or color, local or political affiliation to get involved the president concluded, because the issue has a greater effect on the country; “So we all have a job to do. And we can do it together — black and white, urban and rural, Democrat and Republican…. I believe the continuing struggles of so many boys and young men — the fact that too many of them are falling by the wayside, dropping out, unemployed, involved in negative behavior, going to jail, being profiled — this is a moral issue for our country. It’s also an economic issue for our country… So we need to change the statistics — not just for the sake of the young men and boys, but for the sake of America’s future.”
Already, the program is experiencing rare bipartisan praise from African American leaders and none other than Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign rival, former Republican candidate and Arizona Senator John McCain who told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead with Jake Tapper”; “I think it’s an excellent initiative and obviously the President is deeply committed to it, and I think that’s very praiseworthy.”
Earlier this month when the initiative announcement was delayed because of a Washington, DC snowstorm on Friday, Feb. 14 an administration official told USA Today the initiative aims “to make sure that every young man of color who is willing to work hard and lift himself up has an opportunity to get ahead and reach his full potential.”
The program a partnership between “businesses and foundations” will focus from childhood and education to adulthood and employment, attempting to curb the “the school-to-prison pipeline.” The businesses and foundations have already invested $150 million and pledged to invest $200 million more in the “next 5 years.” Among the foundations that have pledged funding and support are the “Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Ford Foundation and The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.”
The program’s announcement comes two years to the week after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was gunned down unarmed in Florida by George Zimmerman, Martin’s parents were in attendance in addition to Jordan Davis’ another African American youth killed in Florida in 2012. These two incidents sparked in the president that something has to be done for African-American and Hispanic youth. At the time reacting to Martin’s death Obama lamented “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” President Obama had been criticized in his first term as not doing enough for underprivileged minorities, especially as the first African-American President he was in a unique position to make a difference, however, Obama plans to continue on this issue in his post-presidency.
As President Obama recounted in his address he was inspired to create the initiative from a February 2013 meeting of participants of “Becoming A Man” program attending Chicago’s Hyde Park Academy High School in the South Side, where both the boys and the president shared stories about obstacles to succeed and the perils of growing up in the South Side. Obama then invited these boys, who mostly had absent fathers to a Father’s Day at the White House, where they attended a luncheon, and the president showed them around including the Oval Office and private study. The inspiration has been mutual, and that was why members of the program were present at the initiative’s announcement representative of examples how minority youth can overcome the obstacles life presents them.
The initiative also fulfills President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union promise; “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 tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential.”
- President Barack Obama’s Remarks on “My Brother’s Keeper” Initiative, Feb . 27, 2014
- My Brother’s Keeper | The White House
- My Brother’s Keeper: A New White House Initiative to Empower Boys and Young Men of Color | The White House