Students at Robeson High, in one of Chicago's most dangerous neighborhoods, Englewood.
Photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz/Pulitzer Center

Obama’s outreach to young men of color: too little too late?

Updated

After five years in office, America’s first black president may finally be getting serious about helping young minority men.

The White House announced earlier this month that President Barack Obama is set to launch a new initiative called “My Brother’s Keeper,” aimed at bolstering the lives of young men of color – a demographic far too often trapped in cycles of poverty, academic failure and incarceration.

“We’re going to pull together private philanthropists, foundations, working with governors and mayors and churches and non-profits and we’re just going to focus on young men of color and find ways in which we can create more pathways to success for them,” Obama said in an interview that aired during the NBA All-Star game on Sunday.

But, the president added, “We’re not going to create some big new government program.”

While news of the initiative was welcomed by advocates, larger questions loom about the efficacy of such a sweeping, yet-to-be fully defined mandate. The administration has so far offered few details on the nuts and bolts of the initiative or how it would be funded or coordinated nationally.

A White House official told msnbc that more details would be announced when the program is officially launched February 27. Resources dedicated to the new initiative are “significant and growing,” the official said, without offering a dollar figure.

Such vagueness concerns many advocates, who say addressing the myriad challenges facing minority men requires a firm commitment and resources to match.

Members of St. Sabina Church gather to pray after a peace march in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood of Chicago.
Members of St. Sabina Church gather to pray after a peace march in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood of Chicago.
Photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz/Pulitzer Center
“What worries me is that it will be symbolic and not substantive and anything that does not address the real structural barriers to opportunity for young men of color is going to be meaningless,” said Pedro Noguera, executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University. “We’ve got to look at jobs, job training, education and something different from what they’ve been doing, because what they’ve been doing hasn’t been working.”

My Brother’s Keeper is the latest in a string of recent administration efforts to ease the burdens of America’s most vulnerable, among them young black and Latino men. And it comes at a critical moment in Obama’s presidency, as a second-term offers the rare benefit of hindsight and course correction.

As much as President Obama’s legacy will be defined by his ascendance as a black man to the presidency of the United States, he spent much of his first term in office skirting the very notion of race. But since his historic election, Obama’s presidency has been marred by partisan fights and dreams of change torn apart by political gridlock and obstructionism. In his second term Obama seems to have shifted to secure the very legacy, as America’s first black president, that he largely avoided in his first four years in office.

Will it be enough and is there adequate time for Obama to offer his most ardent block of constituents anything in the way of meaningful policy that will solidify that legacy?

“It’s not too little too late, but it’s been too little,” said Khary Lazarre-White, executive director and founder of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, a youth advocacy group based in Harlem, NY. “I understand the restrictions on the President and the do-nothing Congress that he has been faced with that has been intransient. That being said, I don’t think there has been enough of an effort around policy, the use of the bully pulpit to address these issues.”

A change in tone

When Obama was pressed by the Congressional Black Caucus in his first term to do more to address double-digit black unemployment rates, he would often speak of a broader mission to improve the national economy. “I want all Americans to have opportunity. I’m not the president of black America. I’m the president of the United States of America,” Obama told Black Enterprise magazine in 2012.

Critics complained he’d forgotten his roots as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago, and that in the bubble of mostly white advisers he’d been insulated from the harsh realities facing many African Americans. The president was also skewered for how he sometimes addressed black audiences, rubbing folks the wrong way with his talk of bootstrap responsibility that was viewed more as chastisement than brotherly love.

But last summer, amid national protests and anger following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, Obama stepped before cameras and spoke in a way that signaled a tonal and practical shift in the way he and his administration would handle matters of race in his second term. He spoke eloquently of the travails of being young and black in America, asking if more could be done to give black boys a sense that “their country cares about them and values them.”

Family photos hang on a wall in the Perteet home in Chicago.
Family photos hang on a wall in the Perteet home in Chicago.
Photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz/Pulitzer Center

It’s a cause that has been both fashionable and fleeting, time and again. 

For the better part of two decades non-profit groups, governmental agencies, philanthropists and universities have tried to address the challenges of young black and Latino men with varying results. And there has been no real meaningful, robust policy initiative on the state or national level that has put forth the kind of resources required to attack the vast array of social, educational and economic hurdles that confront this demographic.

Even as the plight of young men of color has cycled in and out of various philanthropic circles as a favored cause, prospects for these young men have remained relatively bleak despite the steep costs shouldered by society when they fall through the cracks.

“Given that there has been so much activity, why has the outcome not changed? Why have the numbers of black men in college, in terms of enrollment and academic performance and graduation rates pretty much remained the same as they were 15 years prior?” said Shaun Harper, a professor in the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania who has researched the effectiveness of educational programs focused on young men of color.

The alarming statistics regarding minority male achievement have sparked a kind of knee-jerk reaction, compelling leaders to “act quickly without serious strategic planning,” Harper said.

PHOTO ESSAY: The toll of zero-tolerance discipline

Efforts have been narrowly limited and often launched in stand-alone or fragmented ways, Harper said. There has generally been a lack of comprehensive efforts that offered a wrap-around approach that sought to remedy the many very real barriers between these young men and solid, stable lives.

“Educators and policy makers have been attempting to solve the education problem without connecting it appropriately to other aspects of young men’s lives,” Harper said. “A kid can’t do well in school if he’s hungry or if he lives in severe poverty or if he doesn’t have healthcare or his neighborhood is especially violent.  All of those things undermine school achievement and school, college and career readiness.”

‘Make sure people are talking about this’

Even with the lack of detail offered by the administration, the My Brother’s Keeper initiative suggests Obama in his second term is more willing to use policy to address the condition of minority Americans.

“What he’s tried to do consistently is make sure people are talking about this,” said David Johns, executive director of the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for African Americans. Obama launched that initiative in 2012 with an executive order to help accelerate national efforts to support African American students.

“We can’t take for granted that people are talking about the importance of education and the importance of supporting boys and men of color across the board, not just academically but socially and emotionally,” Johns said.

Last year the Justice Department overhauled crack-era drug sentencing laws that largely punished non-violent, minority offenders with stiff mandatory sentences. The department also recently refined guidelines to school districts on ‘zero tolerance’ discipline policies that have disproportionally affected black and Latino students.  Just last month the president and First Lady Michelle Obama announced an initiative that would knock down some of the barriers between poor and minority students and a college education.The Obama administration has taken other steps to address challenges disproportionally facing young people of color.

Students at Robeson High face myriad challenges.
Students at Robeson High face many challenges. As they enter school they have to walk through metal detectors, witness fights, and often do not know what they are doing on a day-to-day basis.
Photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz/Pulitzer Center

“This initiative and where the president’s heart is on this is something that is going to last for generations,” a White House official said. “It takes it a step further than his representation as the first African-American president. It’s him using his power to convene to bring people together and bring resources to really target these young men.”

But advocates for young minority men say the time has come for a greater commitment – one that carries real money and will be sustainable over time.

“What worries me is that it will be symbolic and not substantive and anything that does not address the real structural barriers to opportunity for young men of color is going to be meaningless.”
Pedro Noguera, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University

My Brother’s Keeper was developed after months of meetings with community leaders, administration officials and groups of young minority men. On a number of occasions Obama sat with African American teenagers, many of whom are from the hard-scrabble streets of Chicago, the president’s hometown.

The effort has drawn various cabinet level officials to the table including Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, as well as business leaders including NBA Hall-of-Famer turned business mogul Earvin “Magic Johnson.

Administration officials say the hope is to put teeth to programs already working across the country and further gains already being made, specifically on the academic front, including recent upticks in graduation rates among black and Latino high school students and rises in proficiency rates in math and reading for black fourth and eighth graders.

The recent spikes in black and Hispanic high school graduation rates have pushed the national graduation rate to its highest level since 1974, according to the Department of Education. Officials there point to a report showing that from 2003-2010 the graduation rate for blacks jumped from 59% to 66% and the graduation rate for Hispanics rose from 66% to 71%. And while the rate of college enrollment for both groups has climbed over the past decade, it continues to remain low, with 32% of Hispanics enrolled in college and 38% of black students.

“I acknowledge that we can always do better. Our goal is that all of our kids have access to a high quality education,” Johns said. “There is still work to do and we’ll spend the next 35 months accelerating as many opportunities as possible.”

But academic gains aren’t enough. The shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and other young black men killed by white men and police officers, and the daily drumbeat of urban gun violence of which minority men are the predominate perpetrators and victims, underscores the very perilous consequences they often face in a society that generally perceives them as a threat. 

Community organizers commemorate the one-year anniversary of the death of Damian Turner.
Community organizers commemorate the one-year anniversary of the death of Damian Turner in Aug 2011. Turner was 18 when a stray bullet hit him while he was outside his home in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago.
Photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz/Pulitzer Center
When Obama stepped to the lectern last summer after Zimmerman’s acquittal, he attempted to explain to the public why it had struck an especially tender cord in black America.

“Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Obama said, sharing his own experiences with racial stereotypes. It was an unusually candid moment for the president, who rarely draws attention to his race.

“Beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do?” he asked. “Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government – the criminal code. And law enforcement has traditionally done it at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels. That doesn’t mean, though, that as a nation, we can’t do some things that I think would be productive.” 

My Brother’s Keeper seems to be rooted in that pivotal moment in Obama’s presidency.

Still, questions remain about how exactly it will differ from any that came before it.

“The problem is that too often the narrative of these efforts does not match the resources,” said Lazarre-White, of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol.

“We need a Marshall plan for urban America,” he said. “We need a Marshall plan around these issues. It is positive that [President Obama] is brining attention to this issue in what he’ll announce. But the major negative would be if the dollars don’t match the narrative.”

The New York City model

People with knowledge of the development of My Brother’s Keeper say the administration has looked toward an ambitious New York City initiative as a model.

That effort, a $130 million mix of city and private funding called the Young Men’s Initiative, was launched in 2011 by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. By most accounts it was the largest investment from any city in the nation that took aim at addressing the struggles of young men and boys of color.

The initiative was launched as a three year effort costing about $43 million a year addressing four key areas – education, employment, health and justice. Its goal was to connect young men to educational, employment, and mentoring opportunities across more than a dozen city agencies and work to fill-out efforts already showing signs of success. It also developed or supported literacy and fatherhood programs.

But there’s a catch: Half the funding for the initiative came from private monies provided by Bloomberg himself via Bloomberg Philanthropies and from fellow billionaire George Soros through the Campaign for Black Male Achievement at the Open Society Foundation.

Linda Gibbs, who served as a deputy mayor under Bloomberg and supervised the implementation of the initiative across city agencies, said the quickest gains were made in education and justice. Through training and the development of alternatives to incarceration, the city was able to spur a drop in school suspension in pilot schools by about 23% and school arrests by about 34%, Gibbs said.

“A kid can’t do well in school if he’s hungry or if he lives in severe poverty or if he doesn’t have healthcare or his neighborhood is especially violent.”
Shaun Harper, Associate Professor and Executive Director, Center for the Study of Race & Equity in Education, Penn Graduate School of Education

“A lot of systems still have a lot of old fashioned, tough on crime policies and they think nothing but arresting kids and teaching them a lesson is the only way to straighten them out. But the opposite is true,” Gibbs said.

According to the city’s 2012 report on the Young Men’s Initiative, all of New York City public schools are now measuring academic progress of black and Latino boys. And while the report highlights a number of modest gains in other areas, Gibbs said it’s too early to really gauge the impact of the initiative.  

Supporters and critics alike questioned the sustainability of the New York City program given its three year timeframe and the uncertainty of future private funding. Some said the effort was doomed by a lack of financial resources and teeth.

Lazar Treschan, director of Youth Policy at the Community Service Society in New York who has studied the outcomes of New York’s YMI said what is key is not just the scope of programming but the funding formula and implementation on the ground.

Treschan said there’s a half-life in terms of sustainably because once the private funding ends, a new administration is left holding the bag.

“While we’ve seen some strong results, I’m concerned about sustainability and that the programs need to be scaled,” Treschan said.

And while the announcement that the city was going to spend $130 million on the program garnered headlines, the annual allotment is a hard to track drop in the bucket in a city with a more than $70 billion budget.

Gibbs called the idea that the initiative hasn’t been funded properly “totally ridiculous.”

“We already spend billions and billions and billions of dollars on services that produce bad incomes. People need to change the way they spend existing resources,” Gibbs said.

She added, “Anyone who thinks you’re going to change a bad outcome by simply declaring it so is wrong. It takes long, hard, unrelenting work and anyone who doesn’t believe that is fooling themselves.”

Pedro Noguera, at the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, said he was skeptical of New York’s Young Men’s Initiative from the start because of what he described as politics muddying a really earnest effort to take on a serious societal issue.

“Because of political reasons they wouldn’t even address the issue of stop-and-frisk, which in my opinion was part of the reason for the incarceration of an extraordinarily high number of young black men,” Noguera said, referring to the New York Police Department’s controversial policy which targeted mostly minority men for random stops. The tactic was championed by Mayor Bloomberg.

Ultimately, Noguera said, the success or failure of a federal initiative will hinge on funding, strategy and how the president is able to weather the political hits he may take over the effort.

“There’s always politics and the President is going to hear people who are going to attack him for addressing black males. What’s important to me is how he frames it, not as a black male problem but as an American problem,” Noguera said. 

Barack Obama

Obama's outreach to young men of color: too little too late?

Updated