More than 200 black men have signed on to a letter expressing concerns about My Brother’s Keeper, the initiative launched by President Obama and the philanthropic community earlier this year to address what the White House calls “opportunity gaps” facing young men and boys of color. The signers—among them actor and activist Danny Glover, scholar Robin D.G. Kelley and author Kiese Laymon—take issue with the $200 million effort’s exclusive focus on boys and men.
The entire letter is worth a read, but its argument is summed up in its final paragraph:
If the denunciation of male privilege, sexism and rape culture is not at the center of our quest for racial justice, then we have endorsed a position of benign neglect towards the challenges that girls and women face that undermine their well-being and the well-being of the community as a whole. As Black men we believe if the nation chooses to “save” only Black males from a house on fire, we will have walked away from a set of problems that we will be compelled to return to when we finally realize the raging fire has consumed the Black women and girls we left behind.
I raised similar concerns after the president’s February announcement, so I’ll be closely watching this effort to encourage the initiative to adopt a stance that’s more inclusive to women and girls. This more holistic approach is crucial, according to the letter’s signers, in part because “our historic struggle for racial justice has always included men as well as women who have risked everything not just for themselves or for their own gender but for the prospects of the entire community.”
Vassar College professor Luke Harris is a co-founder of the African American Policy Forum, a think tank that’s helping coordinate the effort and hosting the letter on its website. Harris is one of ten men who are recruiting and organizing signers. He told me this week that the overwhelming response to the letter has been gratitude.
“There are a lot of people who feel that this is a threshold moment for us to have a conversation,” he said, and emphasized the similarities between the My Brother’s Keeper initiative and the Million Man March in 1995. Then, event organizers invited men to reclaim their families and communities. Women were asked to stay home.
“From our perspective, it’s a glaring example of the same phenomenon,” Harris said. “It’s a long-term rebranding of the racial justice discourse into a struggle by and for black male leadership, empowerment and responsibility.”
What this amounts to, according to Harris, is “the subsequent marginalization of the role of African-American women as actors in the racial justice movement and a decentering of their needs, which are every bit as important as the needs of their brothers.”
The same message is amplified in an op-ed by Harris published this week. In it, he takes on the widespread perception that girls and women of color are somehow in an advantaged position vis-à-vis boys and men, writing:
We know, but do we care that Black girls are much more likely to be suspended than all other girls and most boys as well? We know, but do we care, that Black women have lower average incomes and possess significantly less wealth than both Black men and White women? We know, but do we care, that Black women are disproportionately burdened with childcare in situations of acute poverty?