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.”