Obama’s Racial Justice Initiative—for Boys Only
On a Saturday morning in mid-July, about seventy-five recent high school graduates and college underclassmen—all young black men—crowded into the Laney College student center in downtown Oakland, California. Some were accompanied by parents, mostly their mothers. Some wore red button-up shirts and black ties that marked them as members of the Striving Black Brothers Coalition, a group that provides mentorship to young African-American men attending a nearby community college. One wore a letterman-style jacket issued by another college-prep program geared toward black youth. Embroidered on the back was a question: What if the prince dared to be king?
The princes in question had been convened by the College Bound Brotherhood, an organization that connects black boys and young men in the Bay Area to scholarships and peer support. They spent the day hearing from a former college-football star as well as admissions officers from the University of California—all men of color. Meanwhile, their parents attended sessions on financial aid and traded tips on dorm move-ins and care packages. The young men learned how much time to spend on homework (two hours for every one spent in class), the best place to sit in a classroom (never farther back than the third row), and how many community-college credits are required before a student is eligible to transfer to the UC system (sixty). Monique Johnson, whose 17-year-old son recently graduated from nearby San Rafael High School and will be attending the California Maritime Academy, considered all of this a godsend.
“Where else are you going to have a room full of African-American men of this age who are not in trouble, who are doing the right thing?” she asked me. “And their parents are here,” she added, “so this debunks every myth that you’ve heard.”
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Debunking “every myth that you’ve heard” about black and Latino boys and young men is a goal of the Obama administration’s My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) initiative, which seeks to close the “opportunity gaps” faced by boys and young men of color. Not since Bill Clinton tried—and failed—to launch an initiative on race during his second term has a president called attention to the persistent racial disparities in health, wealth, education, incarceration and more. This time around, the effort involves more than holding town halls and issuing reports: My Brother’s Keeper has partnered with foundations, which will allocate $200 million for the initiative, as well as corporations like AT&T, UBS and JPMorgan Chase, which have pledged $100 million in additional financial support.
Many racial-justice advocates have welcomed President Obama’s attention, and the funding that comes with it. But since it was launched in February, My Brother’s Keeper has met with a firestorm of criticism in opinion pieces, on cable news shows and in two highly publicized open letters. On Twitter, opponents have adopted the hashtag #WhyWeCantWait—referring to the 1964 book by Martin Luther King Jr. that grew out of his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”—as their rallying cry. The crux of these critics’ argument: if the Obama administration’s sole racial-justice initiative focuses exclusively on boys and men, then girls and women of color—who are part of the same disadvantaged families, classrooms and communities—find themselves ignored.
The African American Policy Forum (AAPF), a think tank led by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, has taken the lead in harnessing a response. It organized the two open letters—one signed by more than 200 black men, and the other by more than 1,000 women of color—and hosted public conference calls. On one such call in early July, Kristie Dotson, a signer and philosophy professor at Michigan State University, put the question succinctly: “Are black girls genuinely part of the black community?”
At the heart of My Brother’s Keeper is a questionable assumption: that the key to developing stronger families and communities is to create more successful (and thus more marriageable) young men. MBK’s proponents argue that boys and young men of color lag uniquely far behind their white and female counterparts, but they fail to explain how improving the boys’ success will address the myriad challenges faced by black and Latina girls and young women. For example, black girls and women age 10 to 24 are murdered at rates higher than any other group of girls or women. Black girls are three times more likely than white girls to be suspended from school. The median wealth of single black mothers is $100 and $120 for Latina single mothers; it’s $45,400 for white single moms. Also, black and Latino students—girls and boys alike—have made almost no progress in twelfth-grade reading scores in the past two decades and still trail behind white students.
Supporters of My Brother’s Keeper counter that this administration does have an initiative aimed at females: the White House Council on Women and Girls. But the council’s chief purpose is to act as a clearinghouse for research on this demographic. It lacks the private funding that gives MBK the potential to make an impact. It also lacks a focus on communities of color.
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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Alvin Starks is a longtime progressive racial-justice strategist who has worked with major funders of programs addressing racial inequality. He was a program officer at the Open Society Foundations (OSF) in 2006, when The New York Times published a front-page story credited with inspiring the philanthropic focus that led to MBK. The article, headlined Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn, drew attention to the increase in incarceration rates throughout the 1990s and the persistent joblessness among black men. The piece marked a turning point for his colleagues, Starks said, but the approach seemed limited in scope to him even then. “The conversation wasn’t about unions, it wasn’t about globalization, it wasn’t about a changing economy,” he recalled. “Instead, the focus was on a person who couldn’t gain access because he was ill-equipped. I wanted folks to have a different frame that was around a broken democracy, not a broken individual.”
Starks is among the more than 200 black men who signed the AAPF letter on the shortcomings of My Brother’s Keeper. In addition to overlooking girls and women of color, he says, MBK lacks a structural analysis of racial inequity. The initiative’s emphasis on personal responsibility rather than institutional barriers enables billionaire stop-and-frisk defender Michael Bloomberg and Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly to endorse the effort. On Twitter, CNN commentator and educator Marc Lamont Hill took issue with MBK’s singular focus on males—“I guess I don’t concede that black women are in favorable position vis a vis black men”—but also questioned whether expanding the initiative was the best solution: “I have no desire to expand My Brother’s Keeper, but to scrap it altogether in favor of more humane and democratic policy.”
Starks ticked off a list of pressing issues—affirmative action, minimum wage, the earned-income tax credit—that he says have been ignored by many program officers now closely aligned with MBK. Meanwhile, he added, programs that promote responsible fatherhood or facilitate rites of passage are well-supported. The question that really motivates funders, Starks said, is: “How do we teach them how to, quote-unquote, man up?”
Sometimes the message to “man up” can be subtle, as it was during a session I attended at the College Bound Brotherhood event, where Tremeal Bradford, an admissions counselor at UCLA, addressed a group of young men. A native of Compton, Bradford transferred from Santa Monica College, a two-year school, to UCLA and graduated in 2009; he now works in the UCLA admissions office. When talking to the audience about time management, Bradford turned up the swagger, telling the young men—who were listening with rapt attention—that “time is the ultimate pimp. True leaders in life, they learn how to pimp time.” Was the reference a youthful misstep—or did it go to the heart of critics’ misgivings about what’s being communicated in some gender-specific programs for boys and men of color?
When I talked to him later, Bradford said he hadn’t meant any harm. “I look at pimping as taking full advantage of the resources available to you,” he said. He insisted that his word choice, much like the references he makes to rap lyrics and pop culture, helps make him relatable to young people. The suit he wears can put up a barrier, he said, and he strives to be approachable.
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The Brown Boi Project is not the typical grantee receiving funds for programs intended for boys and young men. The Oakland-based project, which receives financial support from OSF’s Campaign for Black Male Achievement, encourages people of all gender identities, particularly those in communities of color, to challenge traditional understandings of masculinity. The organization facilitates “leadership circles” in which participants, primarily transgender men and women who identify as “masculine of center,” talk about how they can express themselves outside the confines of gender norms. Though in the minority, straight cisgender boys and men are included, field director Erica Woodland tells me. In a Brown Boi circle, the use of a loaded word like “pimp” would raise conversation around its origins and meaning, Woodland adds: “If, to be relatable, you need to use language that reinforces violence against women, then that’s a problem. Young people can relate to you when you’re authentic, even if you’re different.”
Brown Boi is introducing its boundary-pushing thinking to organizations that receive funding for boys and men of color. In meetings with funders and grantees, Brown Boi consistently calls attention to the absence of gay, bi and transgender men from the conversation, Woodland says. This past school year, the group ran a program that explored bullying, gender identity and racial justice for boys at a middle school in East Oakland. One recent recipient of a Black Male Achievement fellowship, Kalimah Priforce, tells me that Brown Boi expanded his perspective; he will now prioritize the inclusion of transmasculine people as he plans an upcoming tech hackathon.
Joanne N. Smith, executive director of the Brooklyn-based youth development organization Girls for Gender Equity and another signer of the AAPF letter, agrees that gender-specific programming can work, but argues that it needs to happen alongside inclusive programs. “We’ve found a way to do it collectively here,” she says. “We learned from early on that we have to work with the boys.” Programs can be tailored for different groups of young people, she continues, but it’s critical to “then also come together to have those collective community conversations.”
When Smith was invited to a Washington, DC, convening of social-justice nonprofits tasked with drafting a statement of principles for an MBK report, recommendations she supported—such as addressing the needs of LGBTQ youth and boys who experience sexual assault—were left out. Instead, the report focused on six seemingly uncontroversial goals, such as getting more boys of color to read at the appropriate grade level. “When we read the report, [our contribution] was totally missing,” Smith says. She’s adamant that the calls for a different approach will continue until there’s a meaningful response from MBK leadership: “There’s no way we can allow this initiative to go on without a gender-inclusive lens.”
Read more from our special issue on racial justice
Mychal Denzel Smith: “How Trayvon Martin’s Death Launched a New Generation of Black Activism”
The Editors: “Renewing the Struggle for Racial Justice, Post-Ferguson”
Paula J. Giddings: “It’s Time for a 21st-Century Anti-Lynching Movement”
Rinku Sen: “As People of Color, We’re Not All in the Same Boat”
Melissa Harris-Perry: “Obama Is Responsible for the Protests in Ferguson—but Not in the Way You Think ”