Obama’s Battle for Black Boys: My Brother’s Keeper, 2 Years Later

His Lasting Legacy: Two years after it was launched, the initiative is a success and a part of President Obama’s legacy, but is it enough?

“Trayvon Martin could have been me.”

Those were the words a visibly shaken President Barack Obama expressed to the country one summer day almost three years ago, a week after slain teen Trayvon Martin’s killer was acquitted of all charges and allowed to walk free. President Obama, like much of black America, was despondent about what this signaled about how young black men’s and boys’ lives are valued. Often noted for his cool demeanor, the president was deeply affected, saying that 35 years ago he was Trayvon, another young black teen.

This was personal.

And the president knew that he could not stand idly by while young boys of color—boys in whom he saw himself—were left mired in a different, more difficult America. But he also knew that with an aggressively uncooperative Congress unwilling to move on any significant policy, he would have to use his personal clout to take action.

He told the press room that day, “We need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys. I’m not naive about the prospects of some grand, new federal program. … [If we] figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African-American men feel that they’re a full part of this society … I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation.”

This was the birth of My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative specifically geared toward improving outcomes for young men of color, meant to close the opportunity gaps that they routinely face. Shortly thereafter, the president formally announced the program’s creation, released a presidential memorandum establishing a task force to consider the best way forward, and issued a call to action to communities and cities around the country.

My Brother’s Keeper reaches its second anniversary this month, and as part of The Root’s monthly series His Lasting Legacy, on President Obama’s final year in office, we are taking a closer look at Obama’s most personal project.

The many challenges that young black men and boys face are well-known. They are more likely than their white peers to be born into poverty, grow up in a home without a father, be subjected to disciplinary action in school, commit and be victimized by violent crime, and end up in the criminal-justice system. They are less likely to be able to read at grade level in elementary school, graduate from high school, hold steady employment or be socially mobile. This is a recipe for terrible outcomes and complicates the ability of these young men to achieve their full potential. The end result is not only a distressed African-American community but also a weaker economy and a nation that fails too many of its citizens.

To address this issue, the president received more than $350 million in investments from philanthropic organizations, pledges from the private sector, and commitments from city and community leaders and citizens to help tackle the problem. All resources are geared toward identifying the proven programs that can be scaled nationally, establishing a mentoring network, and maximizing the public-private partnerships required to address the multiple facets of the challenges facing young men and boys of color. And the work will be measured according to My Brother’s Keeper’s six milestones for these young men and boys: ensuring a healthy start and their readiness for elementary school, developing reading proficiency by third grade, becoming college- and career-ready high school graduates, completing postsecondary education or training, successfully entering the workforce, and keeping on track.

These are all great goals, but two years later, is My Brother’s Keeper making a difference?

“My assessment is that [things with My Brother’s Keeper] have gone very well, so well that in some regards they’ve actually exceeded our expectations,” said Broderick Johnson, assistant to the president and White House Cabinet secretary. Johnson is also chair of the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force. “The outpouring and reaction has been quite remarkable.”

Johnson praised the more than 200 communities that have “accepted” the MBK challenge.

“We’ve seen mayors, both Democrats and Republicans, and tribal leaders and county executives develop these plans and bring people together, so we couldn’t be more proud of the fact that so many communities have taken up the president’s call to action,” Johnson said. “It has really exceeded our expectations, and we get more and more communities reaching out to us every day that want to become MBK communities.”

Still, the program is not without its flaws.

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