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Obama keeps promise to young men of color

After years of criticism, President Obama will launch his most focused efforts yet to address the dire prospects of young men of color.
Barack Obama waves to students prior to speaking at Hyde Park Academy in Chicago, Feb. 15, 2013.
Barack Obama waves to students prior to speaking at Hyde Park Academy in Chicago, Feb. 15, 2013.

President Obama is expected to launch his most focused efforts to address the dire prospects of young men of color this week, a demographic far too often swept into cycles of poverty and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Obama will unveil details of a new initiative called “My Brother’s Keeper” on Thursday, which will draw on partnerships with foundations and businesses to target young men of color across the country with a range of opportunities and strategies to help bolster their lives. 

The initiative, which will offer “every young man of color who is willing to work hard and lift himself up an opportunity to get ahead and reach his full potential,” according to a White House official, has two key aspects.

The first part involves a group of business and foundation leaders who have come together around implementing and testing strategies in various cities that zero in on key moments in the lives of young men -- times where interventions have shown the most impactful results. That includes making sure the children are ready to learn once they get to school and keeping them out of the criminal justice system.

The second element is an internal effort within the federal government that will focus on using results and evidence to evaluate what has worked and what hasn’t. This component will use existing federal resources and the information learned will be shared with the public in hopes of spreading best practices. 

A rare bi-partisan effort at a time of historic partisan gridlock and inaction in Washington, the administration says it has pulled together Republican elected officials, as well as leaders in the faith and business communities.

The Obama administration has long been criticized for not directing more attention and resources to the plight of African Americans. The announcement comes just weeks after a recent announcement by the Department of Education and the Justice Department that the agencies had refined its guidelines to school districts on so-called zero tolerance policies that have disproportionately punished racial minorities.

The initiative, coupled with a number of other recent efforts, including an initiative to ease the burden of college access for poor and minority students, and last year’s Justice Department overhaul of the crack-era drug sentencing guidelines that disproportionately punished non-violent minority offenders, shows the administration's stepped-up efforts to address sticky themes that Obama had largely steered clear of during his first four years in office.

It reveals second-term Obama’s more recent willingness to push matters of race in a way he’d largely avoided during those rough and tumble days following his historic election.

Norman Kerr, a youth advocate and outreach director for UCAN, a Chicago-based advocacy group, welcomes the news of the initiative. “Some may say it has taken long, but we don’t really care about that. We care that he’s putting focus on this. Our young men of color, our communities of color need this attention and need this kind of program,” Kerr said. “His attention on this issue is critical and of course we should welcome it and think about ways to address the trauma that our young people have experienced and figure out ways to collaborate across parties and communities and put the politics aside to find a way to benefit our communities.”

The president hinted at the prospect of reaching out to minority males in his State Of The Union speech last month, saying almost in passing that “I’m reaching out to some of America’s leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential.”

The President “believes that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to get ahead,” the White House official said. The idea, he said, “is a core American value.”

As part of the renewed focus on young men of color, the White House will be hosting several young people to an event that will include a group from Chicago that Obama met last year during an event to address urban gun violence. The February event at Hyde Park Academy on the city’s South Side, was a homecoming for Obama who’d served as a community organizer on that side of the city. First Lady Michelle Obama also grew up not far from the school.

His speech that day was pointed and emotional and tied in his own experiences growing up as a black man to illustrate the power of determination in the face of adversity. It would be one of many speeches in the coming months that Obama circled back to his own cultural identity as a black man in America and the challenges men of color face daily.

Before the speech, Obama met with a group of young black students who were members of a youth anti-violence program at the school called Becoming a Man.

“I told them I had issues, too,” Obama said that day. “And we talked about what it takes to change.”

“In too many neighborhoods, the future only extends to the next street corner or the outskirts of town,” he said. “For a lot of young boys and young men, they don’t see an example of a father or grandfather who are in the position to support families and be held up and respected.”

Less than six months later, Obama delivered perhaps his most open accounting of the state of race and the life experiences of young black men in particular. A week after former neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin last summer, Obama in an impromptu speech lamented that “Trayvon Martin could’ve been me 35 years ago.”  

He talked personally about how before becoming president he’d seen women clutch their purses tighter when he walked by and heard the click of car doors locking as he passed, and asked if more could be done to give young black men a sense that “their country cares about them and values them.”