My Brother’s Keeper, the $200 million public-private initiative spearheaded by President Barack Obama in February aimed at improving the quality of life for black and Latino boys, is notable because it’s the only time Obama has used the office of the presidency to directly address issues of racial injustice. That’s also part of why it has come under so much scrutiny.
As I said when it was first announced, I believe My Brother’s Keeper is admirable but deeply flawed. That the president sees the life outcomes of black and Latino boys as a personal responsibility he is willing to exert some presidential power over is to be commended. However, My Brother’s Keeper is steeped in the respectability politics that has been central to President Obama’s rhetoric surrounding black people. This program lacks an institutional analysis of racism and the legacy of white supremacy. It puts the onus on communities ravaged by centuries of racist public policy to undo damage they did not cause through education, mentorship and “hard work,” as if the barriers to accessing these things do not persist. It is insulting, in the face of this country’s history, to place the blame for the outcomes of racism on those victimized by it.
Moreover, this program gives me pause because it is gendered in a way that suggests the lives of these boys and young men matter more than girls and young women of color.
Yes, it’s true that black and Latino boys are disproportionately affected by issues such as incarceration rates and joblessness. When considering that, a program aimed specifically at them makes sense. And maybe I would be singing a different tune if I believed My Brother’s Keeper actually had the capacity to address those injustices.
As it stands, I simultaneously do not believe My Brother’s Keeper to be adequate for the young men it seeks to help and that it is unconscionable to leave young women out. If My Brother’s Keeper is going to be the racial justice initiative that President Obama stakes his legacy on, as flawed as it already is, it cannot also repeat the mistake of acting as if women of color are not also affected by racism.
The reason more than 1000 women of color and 200 black men came together to sign two letters asking for the inclusion of girls of color in My Brother’s Keeper (full disclosure: I am one of the signees) is not that anyone believes this particular initiative is the initiative to end all racism and suffering. It’s because racial justice movements of the past have consistently relied on the talent, skills, blood, sweat, time, money and silencing of women. They have fought diligently in the service of justice, only to be told that their specific concerns were either unworthy of attention or too divisive to be taken seriously.
This can’t be permissible at the grassroots or presidential level. Our girls matter, just as our boys matter. They matter to us, they matter to one another, they matter to this country. We can’t keep sending the message that they don’t.