Yesterday, President Obama launched a new initiative called “My Brother’s Keeper,” aimed at improving the quality of life for young black and Latino boys in this country. Let me be clear: when he said, “This is an issue of national importance. This is as important as any issue that I work on. It’s an issue that goes to the very heart of why I ran for president,” I believed him. There’s no doubt, in my mind, that the president cares very deeply about the pervasive inequality in education, incarceration, poverty and violence afflicting black and brown boys and he wants to do something about it. This is important and commendable. But I take issue with what the president considers “something.”
My very first problem is that the initiative is aimed solely at young men. When fighting racism we are often exhorted to help our men and boys overcome it. But women and girls are affected by racism, too, and also suffer from race-based disparities. It’s as if to say that the path to equality for black and brown people is to uphold patriarchy. It’s counterproductive.
Also, the president said over and over again “young men of color,” but was only really addressing black and Latino boys. If that’s his focus, so be it—there are specific disparities black and Latino boys face in education, incarceration and economic opportunity—but repeating “of color” and only meaning black and Latino erases other nonwhite people who fall under that umbrella term.
So we’re talking about black and Latino boys. Then let’s talk about them.
Black and Latino boys are disproportionately targeted by police actions like stop-and-frisk. One in every fifteen black men and one in every thirty-six Hispanic men are incarcerated, as compared to one in every 106 white men. They receive harsher punishments in both schools and the justice system. They experience an unemployment rate typically double that of the national average. These are the statistics My Brother’s Keeper is concerned with.
President Obama has made it clear that he’s of a class of thinkers who recognizes America’s longstanding history of racism, but ultimately believes that the way forward for black and brown youth is to not let their race or gender be an “excuse.” In his view, no matter your circumstances, you can achieve if you’re willing to work hard. That’s the promise of America.
But that has never been the case for black and brown people. We have worked hard for centuries. That work has been exploited, undervalued and at times criminalized. To dismiss that, as the president does (and most other people do), is to take an uncomplicated view of a complicated history.
When President Obama says, “We can reform our criminal justice system to ensure that it’s not infected with bias. But nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son’s life,” he’s not pandering. This is what he actually believes.