Recognizing the limitations of his office and the political realities of a gridlocked Washington establishment, President Barack Obama called upon groups that operate beyond the Beltway—private businesses, philanthropic foundations, and community groups—to join him in raising awareness and money to improve the life opportunities for disadvantaged black and Latino boys. By the time the White House announced its “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative at an East Room event last week, a group of supportive foundations had pledged at least $200 million over five years to promote the creation of programs that keep youth in school and out of the criminal justice system and improve their access to better educational outcomes.
Additionally, the president signed an executive memorandum that orders an executive branch task force to evaluate the effectiveness of various government-wide programs. The idea is to provide research and analysis of existing federal programs to guide government, community groups, and businesses with knowledge about best practices to follow in the future. The White House has established an online “What Works” portal that provides the public with data about federal programs that seek to assist black and Latino youth.
For an administration that has previously been shy about drawing special attention to ways that race disparately affects American life, this flurry of activity targeted directly at black and Latino boys is something of an adrenaline jolt to the heart of critics who have complained that President Obama has done too little to address the needs of black Americans.
One of those critics—Paul Butler, a Georgetown Law professor and former federal prosecutor—went on NPR’s “Tell Me More” to praise the announcement:
This program has the potential to be a game changer. I’m inspired by it. And I’m glad that the president has finally come around to talking about race and doing something meaningful because it’s so important. We just really have to work hard. And … all of us have to work hard to make sure the program is successful.
Predictably, right-wing critics find the program disturbing, illegal, and unconstitutional. Some have even said that it’s flat-out racist. Writing in the National Review Online, Roger Clegg, head of the Center for Equal Opportunity, whined that it only applied to “young men of certain racial and ethnic groups—indeed, why it should not also include young women.”
And in The Washington Post, columnist Jennifer Rubin argued that the president is veering away from talking about harm done to women and gays to pick up the narrative as it affects black boys. She didn’t like the story before, and she likes it less now:
The problem with hyping gender and racial differences is not simply the increased resentment and divisiveness it creates but also that it uses victimhood as a political weapon. Pretty soon words like “discrimination” lose meaning. It seems you are either for an inclusive society—devoted to diminishing racial, ethnic, religious and other distinctions—or you’re not.
The entire hullabaloo is typical political blather. It’s like rooting for your favorite sports team, insisting it can do no wrong, and complaining that the referees never make the right calls.
I’m guilty of it too. But my complaint about the president’s initiative has nothing to do with its substance, which is fine as it goes. There are issues involving some minority boys that need national attention and responses, and I celebrate that the president is trying. What concerns me is the framing narrative.
If you didn’t know better, all of this sudden concern about black and Latino boys would make you think every male of color is headed for a life of ignorance, poverty, prison, or worse—immediate death. Sure enough, the language the administration uses to rally concern paints a dire picture. “The data proves it,” the White House website states ominously. “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.”
Yes, that’s awful. But the flip side of that scary statistic is the fact that murder has become a declining problem for all Americans, falling in 2011 to its lowest level of the past 40 years. More dramatically, the national murder rate has fallen by more than half since 1990—when it spiked at 10.2 percent—to 4.7 percent in 2011. These figures include black boys, who, it must be admitted, are disproportionately affected by these declining rates.
How we as a nation discuss the disparities that affect black and Latino boys matters just as much as the statistics. We can, if we choose, paint the portrait in positive tones. All too often, however, we opt to portray life for minority Americans in the most negative and destructive way. Truth telling will include the countless success stories, including the narrative the current occupant of the White House has shared of his own youth.
As my colleagues at the Center for American Progress and the Half in Ten Education Fund documented in a recent report, “50 Years After LBJ’s War on Poverty: A Study of American Attitudes About Work, Economic Opportunity, and the Social Safety Net,” the Great Society programs helped reduce the number of people living in poverty from around 19 percent when the effort began in the mid-1960s to a historic low of 11.1 percent by the early 1970s. The report also noted that, “Americans … express very strong support for a number of policies to help reduce poverty rates with particular intensity around jobs, wages, and education but also on more traditional safety net items.”
What truly ails the disadvantaged in America—whether they are white, black, Latino, male, or female—is poverty. Jamelle Bouie gets it right in The Daily Beast when he says that “the flaw in My Brother’s Keeper” is that it does little to attack the systemic barriers that produce the segregation, poverty, and institutional or unconscious racism that disproportionately harm the life chances of black and Latino Americans:
Put simply, history matters. And the only way to truly change the odds for these kids is to take that into account. Indeed, that goes for young men like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, who had active fathers, who lived in decent neighborhoods, who had opportunities. They didn’t die because their parents weren’t involved enough; they died because they lived in a country where their lives were feared and devalued.
By saying all this, I don’t want to imply that I agree with the critics of My Brother’s Keeper. Quite the opposite: I want the president’s initiative to succeed and applaud the fact that he is drawing attention to the issue. But I’m equally convinced that his good words and noble gestures will echo hollowly in communities where impoverished youth are untouched by a public and civic commitment.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.