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?
Harris also takes on the narrow definitions of family, the heteronormativity and the leap in logic at the heart of the initiative, writing, “The underlying message here is rooted in the idea that if we help the boys and men, then the situation of girls and women will inevitably get better. With better husbands and sons everything will just ‘click.’”
It’s that apparent trickle-down approach to racial uplift that’s given me pause as I’ve watched the philanthropic community and now the White House adopt this emphasis on boys and men. After I asked how and whether girls and women fit into the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, some commenters countered that girls and women don’t need a place at this particular table because their needs were being addressed by the White House Council on Women and Girls, which was launched in 2009. But a statement the National Organization of Women released last week in support of the men’s letter shows why comparing the two efforts is apples and oranges:
Women and girls of color are in a deep crisis that is too often overlooked. We do not fault the White House Council on Women and Girls for not producing an initiative of the breadth and scope of “My Brother’s Keeper,” as they were neither tasked nor—as importantly—funded to do so. [Emphasis mine.] The Council’s charge applies to “all” women and girls. But if the specific concerns of girls and young women of color are not investigated and addressed, it becomes all too easy to reinforce the unfortunate myth that girls of color have succeeded and are not in need of attention.
There’s a reason it’s easy to forget that there even is a White House initiative for girls: Money makes the world go ‘round, and that older iniative lacks the at least $200 million over five years that the philanthropic community has put in place for boys and men. That NOW even weighed in to offer this perspective and its support for the letter highlights the unexpected bedfellows aspect of the current debate, legal scholar and African American Political Forum co-founder Kimberlé Crenshaw told me.
“This is really an unprecedented moment in feminist and anti-racist politics. I can’t remember a time in history when a group of black men, particularly as diverse as this—academics, laborers, entertainers—have actually made a statement calling on the community and society at large to directly focus on the plight facing African-American women. Another first is a feminist group basically applauding a black male group,” she said. “Each is acknowledging the extent to which race politics and gender politics hadn’t done a good job elevating some of the issues facing women of color.”
Crenshaw called the closing of ranks by the letter’s signers and NOW a “mirror opposite” of the group represented at the president’s My Brother’s Keeper press conference in February. There, conservative Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg—whose commitment to a stop-and-frisk policy that targets young men of color is well-documented—offered their support. It’s the initiative’s focus on personal responsibility over institutional racism and the structures that disadvantage youth of color that allows people like O’Reilly and Bloomberg to feel comfortable getting on board.
“That’s a political realignment,” Crenshaw said of the camps on either side of the debate.
Harris, of the African American Policy Forum, said a webinar to further discuss the sign-on letter and next steps will be held Thursday, June 12. Details can be found on the think tank’s website as they become available.