Are we entering a political moment when it’s okay to use the phrases “young people” and “boys and men of color” interchangeably? If President Obama’s speech at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s awards dinner on Saturday is any indication, then yes.
After recapping some successes of his presidency—from the Affordable Care Act to declines in child poverty and the prison population—Obama heaped a healthy dose of praise on outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder and moved on to My Brother’s Keeper, the White House’s racial justice initiative. Obama emphasized the need “to address the unique challenges that make it hard for all our young people to survive.” In announcing a new “community challenge” connected to MBK, he talked about getting local leaders—mayors, county officials and tribal leaders—to “publicly commit to implementing strategies to ensure that all young people can succeed.”
But My Brother’s Keeper, which the White House launched in February in partnership with foundations and corporations, is squarely focused on addressing the challenges that boys and young men face. The president’s more inclusive language Saturday night indicates that he is well aware of the critiques that call his exclusion of young women and girls a glaring mistake, given that young black and Latina women fall far behind their white counterparts in attaining degrees and earning enough to support a family.
“We’re not forgetting about the girls, by the way,” Obama said Saturday, and he reminded the crowd that he’s dad to Malia and Sasha. “I’ve got a vested interest in making sure our daughters have the same opportunities as boys do.” But by way of explaining how he’ll do that, he pointed to the White House Council on Women and Girls. A nod in that direction has been the consistent defense White House officials have used since the critiques began.
Kimberlé Crenshaw has spearheaded much of the organizing to expand MBK through her group, the African American Policy Forum, and met with White House officials this summer. Crenshaw said she sees the references to the Council on Women and Girls as a cynical bait-and-switch, comparable to empty claims that Jim Crow establishments were separate but equal. “It’s a second-tier, less robustly supported kind of initiative,” she told me in advance of the president’s speech. “The ability to catch up and fund these programs equally would mean that they’d have to put more money in for women and girls.”
To date, My Brother’s Keeper is supported by a pledge of $200 million from the philanthropic community and an additional $100 million from corporations including AT&T, UBS and JPMorgan Chase. No similar infusion of cash has been announced for the Council on Women and Girls, which has been around since 2009.
When I spoke to her this summer for my report on the debate surrounding MBK, Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity director Joanne Smith had similar concerns about the capacity of the Council on Women and Girls, which hosted a research symposium she attended earlier this year. “The hats that Valerie [Jarrett] and Tina [Tchen] wear are admirable, but they’re multiple hats,” Smith said of the Council’s leadership. “The attention that women and girls need will require staffing, will require infrastructure.”
And infrastructure means money. But despite the lack of financial support, a kind of movement focused on the needs of girls and women of color is building steam. In July, AAPF hosted a town-hall meeting in Los Angeles where a dozen women and girls of color testified about their experiences in foster care, juvenile detention and the sex trade.
There will be similar events in New York City in the coming weeks, Crenshaw said. Of finding and partnering with the organizations that serve these girls, Crenshaw said there’s a common denominator: “We find that most of them are starved, both in terms of having champions for the work but also in terms of having resources.”
Leadership from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the National Organization for Women will come together Monday to talk about the relationship between gender and police brutality, and new research is circulating, including a report from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and National Women’s Law Center highlighting staggering stats like this one: while black girls make up just 17 percent of female students, they’re a third of all girls referred to law enforcement and about 43 percent of girls who are arrested because of some school-related offense. The types of offenses, often minor and subjective, show how the nation’s classrooms push out girls of color alongside the boys.
Conversations and research like this are what’s needed to break through the commonly held misperception that girls of color are doing just fine, MBK’s critics have argued.
“What’s important is to actually paint the picture for the community of what has not been seen,” Crenshaw said. “What makes people think that this [MBK] is a common sense approach is because they don’t have a sensibility about what’s actually happening.”