barack obama my brothers keeper

President Barack Obama (right) speaking about his 'My Brother's Keeper' initiative with students from the Chicago's Youth Guidance pro

The My Brother’s Keeper Initiative (MBK) announced three months ago is now making waves, but not necessarily for the reasons it should be. MBK has become the most recent flashpoint in tensions within the Black community around gender and its role in shaping opportunity. While many read the discussion as a debate between two sides—those who are for Black boys and those who are for Black girls—it is one with no winners that will only lead to the casualty of both boys and girls of color.

MBK is important because after a term and a half, President Obama stepped into the spotlight to speak about the ways that the government had a role and responsibility to target opportunities towards boys and men of color. But MBK is really an extension of an already active philanthropic campaign that emerged from a study of funding initiatives targeted at influencing the lives of black males. It is not a government initiative that leverages policies and resources to improve the conditions facing boys and men of color!

Instead, the initiative has three key tasks: 1) Get private philanthropists to give dollars to the plights of males of color, 2) collect information on the status of males of color and 3) highlight programs that offer best practices for working with males of color. Despite some fervor, this program will not be the savior of Black males. Rather, it’s a perfect example of the government’s abdication of responsibility, creating a world where market-based philanthropic efforts are substituted for concrete policy interventions.

Petitioning the President:

Within the last month, two letters have appeared on the African American Policy Forum’s webpage asking that My Brother’s Keeper include Black girls and women. The first letter was signed by over 200 Black men, myself included, and the second letter (check out the hashtag #whywecantwait) featured more than 1000 women of color signatories who ranged from celebrities to everyday women. Both letters outline the value of an initiative that looks at the gender-specific issues facing black males; they highlight the ways that language around the initiative emphasized personal responsibility and downplays the power of public policy to change the life chances of men and boys of color; and they ask that attention not solely be focused on males, when Black women and girls face similarly harsh conditions. While these letters are gaining attention, their purpose has been twisted or misinterpreted in public discussion.

Criticism of the letters reflect four arguments that misdirect the conversation, so understanding why these arguments miss the mark can help us set our sights on moving forward.

Black boys are in crisis, not Black girls. This argument uses stats to compare Black males and females in areas like school completion, employment stats, etc. and concludes that Black men have it harder than Black women. But this is bad social science because it uses the wrong comparison group—Black males and females. Instead, the focus should be on the true problem that inspired the initiative: Black males are falling behind other males. If you look at the MBK charge, discussion from officials, and communication like the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force Report to the President, males of color are compared to White males. As Monique W. Morris argues in Black Stats, within race comparisons often hide the ways that Black women fare worse than other women and, depending on the measure, it cloaks hardships they face around violence, education, wealth, housing and a host of other areas.

Why are you targeting the President when he finally does something for Black males? This argument seems to have mutated from its progenitors. One argued racial loyalty mandated muted disagreement was more acceptable than public protestations. The second, suggested the President was unable to speak in explicit terms about race for fear of political retribution or legislative infeasibility. I subscribed to neither belief, instead, recognizing that only when constituents advocate for themselves will their concerns be addressed. As for timing of the protest, I think Anna Julia Cooper’s words, “only the Black woman can say, ‘when and where I enter…” from 1886 remind us to allow those aggrieved to set the timeline for justice.

The White House already addresses Black and Latino girls’ issues with the Council on Women and Girls. Established in 2009 by President Obama, the White House Council on Women and Girls (WCWG) is tasked with making sure policy considers the needs and experiences of girls and women. Valerie Jarrett, who chairs the Council, recently commented that the work of WCWG addresses the needs of girls of color—noting that they’re “encouraging girls of color to go into STEM fields.” STEM encouragement is good, but certainly it doesn’t reflect systematic consideration of the multitude of hazards and experiences girls of color face. Like most government initiatives, without a direct mandate to research and support targeted initiatives we should not expect to see race and gender specific policy prescriptions.

This is just divide and conquer! Seriously? Black people, like all people, are able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We can talk about gender without it being an attempt to divide our community. Asking for the experiences of both girls and boys of color to be considered is actually unifying, not dividing. We know that classism, racism and sexism persist to this day and shape the differences in experiences across gender and across race. Being serious about the well being of our communities means that we assume no one has a monopoly on oppression. Some have proposed that targeting males of color will “trickle down” to benefit females of color, but this too is a claim of which we should be dubious. The reason for targeted approaches is that we know generalized policy approaches rarely reach our community members in the most need.

The Path Forward

Left untouched, MBK has the potential to become a centrifuge, concentrating disproportionate attention on males of color to the detriment of females of color. If we understand MBK as a campaign to collect data on the unique experiences of males of color, an effort to catalogue best practices, and a magnet to attract philanthropic dollars, then we understand why leaving women and girls out can be so detrimental. Marian Wright Edelman once said, “If we don’t stand for children, we don’t stand for much.” Expanding MBK’s scope does not involve eradicating the spotlighting of conditions of males of color. Instead, the path forward involves pressing the Administration to recognize the needs of all our children—not just some.  

 

Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Black Studies in the Colin Powell School of Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York. He is the author of Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling. You can follow him on Twitter @dumilewis or visit his website.