WASHINGTON — In one of the most significant steps of its kind taken by any Administration, President Barack Obama has unveiled a plan which he hopes will lift young minority men out of a persistent cycle of despair and hopelessness into productive lives.
Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative will be in the hands of a top-level task force, which the president has appointed “to develop a coordinated federal effort to improve significantly the expected life outcomes for boys and young men of color,” he wrote in a memo outlining his plan.
The program will cover not only young African-American men but also Hispanics and Native Americans and the “My Brother’s Keeper Task Force” has been directed to report on its progress regularly over the next year.
Obama issued the memo, titled, “Creating and Expanding Ladders of Opportunity for Boys and Young Men of Color,” on Feb. 27, the same day he hosted a gathering at the White House to announce his plan.
“The disproportionate number of African-American and Hispanic young men who are unemployed or involved in the criminal justice system undermines family and community stability and is a drag on state and federal budgets,” Obama wrote in the memo. “And, young men of color are far more likely to be victims of murder than their white peers, accounting for almost half of the country’s murder victims each year.
“These outcomes are troubling and they represent only a portion of the social and economic cost to our nation when the full potential will benefit not only them but all Americans.”
The president was echoing a growing number of calls for action to help young black men, in particular, escape a life of difficulties. Most significantly, Professor Michelle Alexander of The Ohio State University, in her seminal work, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, has pointed to the trauma that the criminal justice system has caused to African-American men and communities. Attorney Brian Stevenson and his Equal Justice Initiative has also focused attention on this situation.
Obama does not cite the problems in the system but he lists Attorney General Eric Holder at the top of the membership of the task force, which will be chaired by the assistant to the President and cabinet secretary.
In addition, he has directed the panel to “focus on evidence-based intervention points and issues facing boys and young men up to the age of 25, with a particular focus on issues important to young men under the age of 15.”
He called also for attention to be given to their “interaction with the criminal justice system and violent crime.”
Obama has also started paying attention to the disparities in sentences for drug offences – a particularly sore point with Alexander, who has argued that the “War on Drugs” is just a means for perpetuating control of black communities.
Obama picked the name of his initiative from a favorite biblical reference in the Book of Genesis in which God asks Cain where was his brother Abel. Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The president is evidently seeking a positive answer from the nation through what he terms “an interagency effort to improve measurably the expected educational and life outcomes for and address the persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color.”
“The initiative will help us determine the public and private efforts that are working and how to expand upon them,” he says in his memo, “how the federal government’s own policies and programs can better support these efforts and how to better involve state and local officials, the private sector and the philanthropic community.”
At the heart of the initiative will be a public website, to be created by the task force and maintained by the Department of Education. Its purpose is to “assess, on an ongoing basis, critical indicators of life outcomes for boys and young men of color (and other ethnic, income and relevant subgroups) in absolute and relative terms.”
According to statistics posted by the White House, the jobless rate for black men over age 20 was 12 percent in January, compared with 5.4 percent for white men and 8.2 percent for Hispanic men.
Census data pointed to a 27.2 percent poverty rate for black households, 25.6 percent for Hispanics and 12.7 percent for whites.
The duties of the task force, whose members will include 10 Cabinet secretaries and another 10 department directors, will also include creating “an Administration-wide online public portal to identify and disseminate successful programs and practices that improve outcomes for boys and young men of color.”
Obama, in his speech in the East Room of the White House, used his own life as an example of the hurdles which young men of color face growing up, as well as an indication that they can be overcome.
“Nothing is given to you,” he said. “The world is tough out there. There’s a lot of competition for jobs and college positions and everybody has to work hard. But I know you guys can succeed.”
By the time the president spoke, several foundations had pledged at least $200 million over the next five years toward programs to keep young people out of the criminal justice system and improve their chances at a college education.
Material from The Associated Press was used in preparing this report.
PETE SOUZA/OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO
BROTHER’S KEEPER: President Barack Obama enters the East Room of the White House with Christian Champagne at the launch of his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative on Feb. 27.