barack obama my brothers keeper

US President Barack Obama delivering remarks about his 'My Brother's Keeper' initiative 

In President Obama’s last State of the Union address he said, “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.” These words built excitement across the country and many of us found ourselves asking – could a Marshall Plan for young men of color be on the horizon?

The answer is no, but that does not mean the effort is without merit. To create serious traction any effort to help young males of color must battle on two fronts: the empowerment of young males and changing the institutions and systems through which these young males travel. Choosing one front and not the other is a dangerous move.

Last week, President Obama announced more details of the My Brother’s Keeper Taskforce. My Brother’s Keeper is targeted at impacting the life trajectories of Black and Latino males (it’s notable that Native, Asian American, and other males of color are not apparent targets of this initiative despite the use of the umbrella term young men of color). The Obama administration has created a task force that brings philanthropists, the private sector and the federal government together to highlight and expand programs that are working to change the life course of Black and Brown males. With 200 million dollars already pledged and more to come things look promising. Even in the midst of promise, we must remember that money is only one variable in the equation for ensuring success for boys and young men of color.

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Obama’s words and framing of My Brother’s Keeper are important. In the State of the Union he placed a great deal of onus on young men to “stay on track” rather than suggesting the government was attempting to help dismantle systems that set young men off track. In his remarks at the Taskforce’s announcement he made multiple references that emphasized the role of personal responsibility among young males and eschewed the importance of the government. While these may be considered small rhetorical issues, if we are not careful the initiative will uplift programs which concentrate on altering the behaviors of young men without altering the educational and criminal justice systems which are often sites of mistreatment.

I was reminded of this recently when I had a conversation with a grassroots activist who worked at a violence prevention program called “Stop the Violence.” (I gave the program a pseudonym because it runs on grant monies and non-glowing press often can have adverse affects on funding.) STV does great work on ending violence by working with young men of color. The program does self-esteem building, peer mediation, ethnic identity strengthening and is a place where students who struggle with violence, both perpetrators and survivors, can find a safe space to deal with past trauma and create a path forward. Sounds great, right? It is!

The problem is that one of STV’s local school partners sees the program as a dumping ground for “boys with problems.” When disagreements or fights occur the principal uses “zero tolerance policies” to suspend students and mandate they attend STV. Soon, the school was suspending and expelling students in droves and sending them to STV, rather than dealing with school discipline in ways that keep boys in class, among their peers, and learning.

These disciplinary moments at school led to increased police contact. Not coincidentally, the school has been struggling to make Adequate Yearly Progress and pushing students out has been one tactic schools have used to “improve” test scores. When one hand is working to end violence and the other is strengthening the school-to-prison pipeline to improve test scores there are serious conflicts and acute consequences for young men of color.

There are often great distances between what non-profit organizations do and what schools do.  There are often great distances between what social program funders want and what “tough on crime” policymakers advocate. These are the types of contradictions that have to be addressed and, as best possible, resolved to create greater opportunities for males of color. Failure to do so may mean that the grassroots organizations offer great solutions that are met with inequitable systems causing their impact to be ultimately negligible.

Young men of color need assistance. Young men need access to jobs, both skilled and unskilled, that provide economic stability. Young men need to see that working a 9 to 5 does not have to be demoralizing and financially limiting. Young men need to be able to travel the streets freely as citizens and not be unfairly surveilled. Young men of color need to see girls and women differently. Young men of color need to know that when they walk into a courtroom they will have access to justice. Young men need to interact with authorities that care about them. Young men of color need to see themselves differently. Young men of color need school officials, police, and community members to see them differently.

Creating change is not simply about behavior but also about changing the pervasively unequal systems that ensnare young men of color. Great programmatic interventions must be accompanied by serious policy interventions that influence the things that make being a young man of color so difficult. Until then, we will not have a Marshall Plan; we’ll be planning to fail.

Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Black Studies in the Colin L. 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.