In a personal and impassioned speech Monday at Lehman College in New York City, President Barack Obama unveiled a new private sector-funded expansion of his My Brother's Keeper initiative, which seeks to provide incentives and opportunities for young men of color in high-risk areas to improve their lives.
The My Brother's Keeper Alliance, which arrives on the heels of protests and violent clashes with police in Baltimore in the aftermath of Freddie Gray's death, is a "big deal" to the president.
"This will remain a mission for me and Michelle not just for the rest of my presidency, but for the rest of my life," Obama said to applause. "I grew up without a dad. I grew up lost sometimes and adrift," he added, saying that the only difference between him and some of the young men enrolled in one of his signature social programs was that, "I grew up in an environment that was a little more forgiving."
"I was lucky," Obama said as he reiterated that it was of both national, social and economic importance that the country makes it clear that "these kids are our kids" and let all young people know that they "matter to us."
The president spoke frankly on the ongoing drama in Baltimore, acknowledging that a "sense of unfairness and powerlessness" contributed to protests in the city and that young men of color are "treated differently" than police on a far-too-regular basis.
Obama went on to frame the My Brother's Keeper Alliance in economic terms. While mentioning companies like BET and Sprint, which have invested in the program, Obama said, "They’re doing this because they know making sure all of our young people have an opportunity to succeed is an economic imperative."
The president said that so far $80 million has been invested in the My Brother's Keep Alliance. The goals of the organization include getting 50,000 more students of color into secondary education and doubling the amount of black children who read by the third grade.
Obama argued that if we continue to ostracize and jail black and Latino youths "our society will lose in terms of productivity and potential," and warned that "America will not be operating at full capacity" if something doesn't change soon.
Too many young men of color are "languishing in prison over minor non-violent drug offenses," the president said.
He railed against people who "tweet outrage" and "cast blame," but don't follow up with any solutions to get to the root cause of the problem: poverty and the lack of opportunities it presents.
"We don’t always get a lot of reporting on this issue when there’s not a crisis in some neighborhood," a somewhat exasperated Obama lamented. But he added: "We are in this for the long haul."