My Brother’s Keeper Sets Its Sights on Mentoring, With Help From Magic Johnson

Three months after launching My Brother’s Keeper, the White House is focused on narrowing the reading gap, increasing universal pre-K and reforming school discipline standards.

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President Barack Obama delivers remarks about his My Brother’s Keeper initiative with students from the Chicago Youth Guidance program Becoming a Man in the East Room at the White House Feb. 27, 2014.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“No matter who you are, or where you came from—or the circumstances into which you are born—if you work hard, if you take responsibility, then you can make it in this country.”

President Barack Obama spoke those words in February when he announced his My Brother’s Keeper initiative, focused on empowering and improving the lives of young men of color.

And though heartfelt and ambitious, the announcement of the initiative was met with mixed reactions. For many in the African-American community—which remains the president’s most loyal constituency—the initiative was too little too late.

But in his second term, the president is proving to be more brazen about forming new alliances. And with My Brother’s Keeper, the man who stood in the Rose Garden and said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” is now placing political capital behind a program to assist young black men who, with the right investment, could grow up to become president of the United States.

On Friday Obama announced that former NBA all-star and entrepreneur Earvin “Magic” Johnson, along with Joe Echevarria, CEO of Deloitte LLP, will help lead an effort to recruit more private-sector partners to participate in the initiative.

The White House also released the initial findings of the task force set up to implement the initiative, and as a first step is calling on Americans from all walks of life to aid in the president’s goal by pledging to mentor in their communities. The call for mentors is a key part of a series of recommendations, following three months of discussions with public- and private-sector groups that work directly with young men of color. 

Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president, noted Thursday that nearly two-thirds of black children and one-third of Hispanic youths live with only one parent. The White House cites research suggesting that a father's absence increases the risk of his children dropping out of school by 75 percent and 96 percent, respectively, for blacks and Hispanics.

According to the Department of Education, 86 percent of African-American and 82 percent of Hispanic and Native American boys read below proficiency by the time they reach fourth grade. The high school graduation rate among African-American males was 52 percent in 2010 and 58 percent for young Hispanic men, compared with 78 percent for young white men.

In an effort to address these disparities, the My Brother’s Keeper task force recommended the launch of an initiative to close the reading gap by third grade and to target schools with high dropout rates. The task force’s goals mirror many of President Obama’s long-standing policy objectives, including providing high-quality universal pre-K and improving school discipline standards. The administration also recommends the complete elimination of suspension and expulsions during early learning years—which recent studies have shown have a racially disparate impact on adolescent black and brown boys.

The president’s task force marks the starting point of what will be a long-term effort, and the White House has already secured at least $200 million of investment funds from a long list of organizations that include Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Ford Foundation and the Kellogg Foundation.

But the unfortunate truth is that Obama and his team are moving forward with this initiative largely on their own—and the fact that it has no funding or legislative action behind it from members of Congress highlights their lack of engagement with the president on the policy prescriptions that he came into office seeking to work on. 

Admittedly, fixing the gap of access and opportunity created by decades of neglect will require more than any one new well-intentioned program can possibly achieve. 

But My Brother’s Keeper and the action being taken now to implement it is the first step on a long, hard road. As obstinacy and apathy have replaced action on Capitol Hill, the president continues fighting—with all means available to him—to keep his promise and salvage a broken American dream.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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