Obama’s Racial Justice Initiative—for Boys Only
Indeed, very little foundation funding is directed to communities of color in the first place. According to a 2013 Foundation Center report, organizations serving people of color receive only 9 percent of grant allocations. Nor is My Brother’s Keeper the only instance in which boys and men have been made the focus of funding efforts to the exclusion of girls. It builds on a coordinated philanthropic focus that began in the 1990s and was ramped up in 2006, after The New York Times published a front-page article highlighting research on the unique challenges facing black men.
Organizations and individuals receiving grants from the foundations now central to My Brother’s Keeper argue that while the social and economic indicators for girls and young women of color may be bleak, boys and men in these communities can’t afford to wait either. In the pro-MBK camp’s opinion, attempting to hold up an initiative that’s already under way is a risky proposition—especially when the nation’s first black president is championing it. Marc Philpart, associate director of PolicyLink and director of PolicyLink’s Boys and Men of Color Team, argues that the criticism of MBK could have real consequences. “It might become a political hot potato, and nobody picks it up after the president,” says Philpart, who also works with a statewide boys and men of color network convened by the California Endowment, another foundation providing financial backing to MBK. “Critics have been overly harsh and created an air of negativity that helps neither their cause or My Brother’s Keeper. It’s a nascent movement. In situations like that, the goal should be to bring people into the fold and not push them away.”
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Alicia Dixon is executive director of the Marcus Foster Education Fund, one of three organizations that run the College Bound Brotherhood. (Another is the Kapor Center for Social Impact, one of the eleven foundations central to MBK.) Dixon is also an African-American single mother of three boys. She says she understands the perspective of those who have signed the AAPF’s letters, but she’s firm in her belief that the data comparing men and boys to women and girls prove that young black men are at a particular disadvantage when it comes to educational attainment. Young black men complete college at rates lower than any other racial or ethnic group, regardless of sex, according to a 2012 study. Whereas 68.5 and 65.9 percent of black women are awarded associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, respectively, only about a third of black men achieve either. “I get all of that debate,” Dixon tells me. “I just think it’s important that we not get distracted.”
These disparities help explain why foundations made education their top funding priority for black boys and men between 2008 and 2010, according to a 2012 Foundation Center report. In those two years, 40 percent of grant dollars that went to this demographic supported education-related projects.
According to the proponents of such initiatives, programs tailored to meet the specific needs of African-American males will create a ripple effect that reaches other groups. As Dixon puts it: “We think all boats will rise.” Proponents of MBK say the success of programs developed now through grants to support boys and young men of color could lead to the development of future programs targeting other groups, like young Latina women or teenage African-American girls. But to do that, Philpart says, MBK needs to develop without a barrage of criticism from people within the black and social justice communities. When I ask him if he can understand why many women aren’t content to wait for the ripples to reach them, he responds: “I don’t think anybody is asking women to wait. My Brother’s Keeper is great. Let it be that, and women should have a separate initiative. By making My Brother’s Keeper something else and broadening it, you lose the targeting that you want out of a situation like this.”
Sometimes the ripple effect is immediate, asserts Michèle Stephenson, a producer and director of the documentary American Promise, which aired on PBS earlier this year. By Stephenson’s estimate, the Open Society Foundations’ Campaign for Black Male Achievement—another major player in MBK—gave $450,000 in grants and in-kind support for outreach campaigns for the film, which tells the story of how Stephenson’s now-20-year-old son and his friend—who grow from black kindergartners to young men over the course of the movie—navigated New York City’s tony and majority-white Dalton School. In the discussions after screenings, Stephenson says, she witnessed conversations relevant to black communities as a whole. When parents and educators discuss the film, “talking about boys just becomes a platform to talk about the larger issues”—such as educators’ unconscious biases and the academic underperformance resulting from students’ awareness of negative stereotypes—that affect both girls and boys. “How do we expand this discussion,” Stephenson asks, “as opposed to promoting a critique that may not be constructive in the long run?”
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