The unjust killing of Mike Brown has sparked a revolution. Across hundreds of cities around the world, protesters are rising up and demanding an end to the racialized state violence experienced by Black communities everyday in this country. Facing a heavily-militarized police force prepared to throw every weapon at them imaginable, protesters are putting their bodies on the line, fearful only about what is to be lost should they not remain vigilant. Amidst this growing movement, we know that eventually politicians will need to find a new tactic in their attempts to quell resistance. They will inevitably need to convince us that they “care” about Black youth. It is unlikely that their initial response will take the form of the structural changes that could have prevented Michael Brown’s murder, or at the very least ensured a fair political process for charging the man who killed him. There is a much more palpable choice for right wing leaders not genuinely interested in racial justice – The White House’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, a $200 million joint public-private sector initiative to improve outcomes for men and boys of color. This “pull your pants up” approach to inequity, allows politicians to uphold white supremacy, while pretending that they’re fighting it.
In the days leading up to the Grand Jury’s failure to indict Darren Wilson, Ferguson Mayor, James Knowles III, held an MBK summit focused on improving the wellbeing of those he was simultaneously stockpiling rubber bullets, tear gas and armored vehicles to use against. The irony between these two competing narratives reinforces the notion that My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) is not a sign our issues are gaining traction. Much more accurately, it is an attempt to divert our focus. If these officials aren’t interested in holding systems accountable for the killing of unarmed Black youth, they certainly can’t be interested in their so-called “achievement.
The Summit was held as part of Knowles’ recent pledge to MBK Community Challenge, a call from the White House for local municipalities to improve the wellbeing of men and boys of color. President Obama created the initiative in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin and pointed to the initiative as a White House effort to address issues confronting males of color during the initial uprising following Michael Brown’s murder.
MBK is a pretty good deal for cities like Ferguson looking to shore up their shoddy reputations with racial justice gestures on the cheap. To qualify, a city need not ban stop and frisk procedures, the killing of unarmed people of color or the use of military-grade weapons on citizens operating within their constitutional rights. It need not eliminate segregation and housing discrimination, or commit to replenishing public services and ensuring a living wage for workers. As the summit in Ferguson illustrates, MBK does more to provide cover for politicians than to provide meaningful change for communities of color.
As Knowles opened the summit before an audience of mostly white residents and stakeholders, his remarks seemed far removed from what’s driving the protester’s resistance. Michael Brown’s name was not mentioned once. The issue of police brutality was not raised as a pressing concern and none of the City’s young protesters were present. Instead, Knowles, reading verbatim from the MBK Task Force Report, spoke about the need to ensure that Black Boys graduate on time, enter the workforce, and avoid making “bad decisions.” He waxed on about the need to secure resources for mentoring programs and parenting classes, an ironic soliloquy given the large and growing price tag for police surveillance and control of protesters in Ferguson. When a Black senior citizen expressed disappointment that young people weren’t present, Knowles grew deeply defensive. The fact that the meeting was held at 8am in a white neighborhood that isn’t all that safe or accessible for young Black people given the rise in vigilante violence appeared to have raised no red flags.
When asked why he had failed to bring up Michael Brown, Knowles reminded us that he was only a “part-time Mayor,” and that he had already spent hours listening to protesters. He remarked that he had a strong interest in addressing “root cause issues” for Black disempowerment outlined in MBK, such as third grade reading levels and a lack of mentors and that young people don’t always know what they need. Yet, he failed to address the fact that Michael Brown had an active father in his life and was weeks away from starting college–precisely the “uplift” that supposedly advances the well-being of youth of color.
Knowles’ perspective reinforces the idea that rubber bullets and tear gas are not the only repressive weapons at the State’s disposal. The ideological silencing of racism that sits at the heart of MBK may do more than tear gas and tactical maneuvers to distort the issues at stake, repackaging resistance to structural inequality and police violence into a discourse of Black male uplift. Under MBK’s banner there’s nothing for Black youth to overcome but themselves with a little help from mentors and caring adults.
The tension between MBK and a genuine conception of racial justice is not unique to Ferguson however. In Dayton, Ohio — where the police officers who fatally shot John Crawford for holding a toy gun inside a Walmart store were not indicted — the mayor has signed on to MBK. In Portland, Oregon — where the city is fighting to repeal Department of Justice settlement guidelines established in the aftermath of police murders — the mayor again signed on to MBK. Cities aren’t the only beneficiaries of MBK’s magic wand. Even Paula Deen, who used a racial epithet in describing her ideal plantation wedding, has signed up to mentor Black boys.
This might seem puzzling to those who don’t understand what the President’s signature racial justice initiative is and what it isn’t. MBK isn’t rooted in a structural analysis. Instead, it embodies an individualistic “racial uplift program” that suggests that the violence perpetrated against people of color can be remedied through programs that seek to “fix” the “tangled pathology’” of our communities. MBK doesn’t demand that jurisdictions redress institutional racism or even acknowledge that women and girls live in the same communities as men and boys. MBK doesn't listen to what people of color are demanding. Instead, it engages mainstream America in a conversation on what should be done about them.
An initiative rooted in a systematic analysis would, at the very least, also include women and girls. There is a reason that Renisha Mcbride, Rekia Boyd, Tarika Wilson or any of the other unjust murders of Black women are never mentioned by the White House. By perpetuating an analysis that the problem is about a particular group – Black males, and not a particular context, the experience of being Black in America generally – the State is able to propagate the myth that the problem isn’t racism, but the need for Black men to lift themselves up by their bootstraps, be active fathers and seize the American dream for their communities.
As those fighting for justice, we must be cautious of allowing the Administration to use MBK as a weapon to shape our movement, and the real consequences of swallowing the neoliberal myth that Black men have it worse and should be our sole focus. In November, two Black women, Tanesha Anderson and Aura Rosser, were also killed by the police, yet their cases have received very little attention. The invisibilization of their stories isn’t an isolated incident. Hardly any of the women assaulted or killed by police or vigilante violence have been taken up as cause for concern. The fact that our gender-exclusive framework eerily aligns with the Administration’s respectability rhetoric should be a warning sign of what’s to come should we not build an inclusive approach to fighting racial terror in this country. Our inability to articulate and lift up the shared racialized fate of women and men of color is precisely what allows systemic racism to conceal itself.
So while MBK expands to cities across the country, and the White House, as of November, uplifts their alleged efforts aimed at girls of color, we must recognize these efforts as weapons, rather than tools, for our movement. MBK allows those who are harming black people to operate under the guise that they are helping them, while simultaneously working to squander the fruits of a social movement. That their participation is greeted by some with gratitude simply adds insult to injury. What is needed instead of the politics of uplift is substantive accountability and deep structural and political reform, a politics that embraces the shared fate of men and women of color, and that is informed by a vision of racial justice that centers all of us. If these events place into sharp relief the troubling limitations of MBK, we’ll have the Mayor of Ferguson and its political establishment to thank for it.
-Rachel Gilmer is the Associate Director of the African-American Policy Forum. Ashley Yates is the Co-Founder of Millenial Activists United.