President Obama unveiled his historic program “My Brother’s Keeper” at the White House this Thursday, surrounded by Black male titans of business, media, politics and entertainment.
NBA great Magic Johnson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, civil rights leader and MSNBC host Al Sharpton and New Jersey senator Corey Booker were just a handful of the marquee names in attendance, all there to witness and many of them to participate in the launch of the first White House-initiated program specifically designed to help save what is easily the most socioeconomically challenged group in the United States — Black and Brown boys and men.
The initiative brings together private philanthropies, businesses, governors, mayors, faith leaders, and nonprofit organizations that are committed to helping them succeed.
The foundations and corporations have pledged to invest at least $200 million over the next five years in addition to the $150 million they’ve already given. The money will go toward determining which programs are the most successful in helping young men of color and replicating them in neighborhoods nationwide.
The president also signed a presidential memorandum instructing the federal government to work on determining the most successful methods for improving the odds for young men of color.
In his address to the hundreds of people gathered in the East Room, including former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and more than a dozen Black and Brown teens hailing from the Hyde Park Academy on the South Side of Chicago, not far from where he lives, the President spoke candidly about his motivation for helping boys and men of color succeed, despite governmental funding concerns, partisan bickering and other challenges.
"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," he said. “If you're African-American, there's about a one in two chance you grew up without a father in the house. If you're Latino, you have about a one in four chance,” he continued.
As a Black student, the president said, you're less likely that a White student to read proficiently by the fourth grade and far more likely to be suspended or expelled by the time you reach high school, he said. You're also more likely to wind up in the criminal justice system and as a victim as a violent crime.
“The worst part is we've become numb to these statistics,” the president continued. “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," the president said. “But these statistics should break our hearts, and they should compel us to act."
The statistics are personal to him because he could have easily been one.
"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,” said the president, motioning to the group of young men behind him, all participants of a Chicago-based rites-of-passage program called 'Becoming a Man.' "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," he admitted. "The only difference is that I grew up in an environment that was a little bit more forgiving, he said pointing to the startling statistics surrounding Black and Brown male homicide victims in Chicago and in cities around the country. “So when I made a mistake, the consequences were not as severe,” he said.
President Obama said the plight of young men of color is the plight of every American, not just the men themselves.
“This is an issue of national importance,” he said. “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," said the president, adding that making sure young minority men have every opportunity to get ahead in life is both an economic and a “moral issue.”
“It doesn't take that much, but it takes more than we're doing now,” he said.
And the “we” the president pointed to was the men themselves.
No excuses,” said Obama. “Government, and private sector, and philanthropy, and all the faith communities, 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,” he said. “But you've got responsibilities too. And I know you can meet the challenge, many of you already are, if you make the effort.”