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.
But that’s ignoring the root problem. We can turn every black and brown boy into a “respectable” citizen. But the moment we do, the rules for what constitutes “respectable” will change. That’s how racism works (check this history of American barbers and facial hair for one example). That’s how white supremacy sustains itself. It isn’t a rational ideology built on facts, statistics or empirical observations. It’s a system of oppression meant to concentrate power and resources into the hands of white people at the expense of the livelihoods of all nonwhites.
If it’s meaningful that our first black president is able to articulate the experience of young black men in this country, it’s also meaningful when that same first black president lends legitimacy to the racist beliefs of someone like Bill O’Reilly. It’s not an achievement to get O’Reilly in the same room as Rev. Al Sharpton, as the president joked during his address, when nothing about this initiative is going to challenge the racist worldview the FOX News host and his followers hold dear.
I’m sure this initiative will have real benefits for a good number of black and Latino boys. They will be provided mentorship and role models, be afforded opportunities that may have previously existed outside of their imaginations and know that someone out there cares. But that’s a severely limited view of what is needed. It’s basically charity. “Philanthropy is not policy,” Princeton professor Imani Perry said on last night’s All In with Chris Hayes. The role of government should be making philanthropy less necessary.
My Brother’s Keeper is in essence an initiative aimed at helping black and Latino boys find success within a racist system. In some ways, it’s admirable. But finding “success,” however narrowly defined, in the face of racism is not the same as defeating racism. In order to cure what truly ails us as a country, it will take a more concerted effort to reckon with our actual historical record and undo the system of racism that has produced the conditions people of color face today. That’s beyond the power of one American president. But he could put it on the agenda.