‘My Brother’s Keeper’: Did Obama Just Become ‘the Black President’?

The president unveiled the initiative Thursday in an effort to to help young men of color. 

President Obama with young men who later appeared with him at Thursday's My Brother's Keeper event
President Obama with young men who later appeared with him at Thursday's My Brother's Keeper event Pete Souza/White House

Reaction to Plans for Young Men: “At Last,” “Not So Fast”

President Obama‘s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, unveiled Thursday as a heartfelt and personal effort to assist young men of color, was largely praised by African American commentators but criticized by some as elevating the importance of “personal responsibility” over the effects of structural racism.

“At the end of the day, the problems are more structural than cultural,” Paul Butler, Georgetown law professor and a former federal prosecutor, said Friday on NPR’s “Tell Me More.”

So we can pull up our pants and we can stop calling each other the N-word, but that’s not going to change the fact that black unemployment is twice white unemployment or when little Liam acts out, he gets sent to the principal’s office. And when little [Kwame] acts out, he gets the police called on him. So black boys need mentors, yes, but they also need law and policy changes.”

In the Daily Beast, Jamelle Bouie wrote, “Put simply, history matters. And the only way to truly change the odds for these kids is to take that into account. Indeed, that goes for young men like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, who had active fathers, who lived in decent neighborhoods, who had opportunities. They didn’t die because their parents weren’t involved enough; they died because they lived in a country where their lives were feared and devalued.”

Still, Butler added, “This program has the potential to be a game changer. I’m inspired by it. And I’m glad that the president has finally come around to talking about race and doing something meaningful because it’s so important. We just really have to work hard. And you’re right, all of us have to work hard to make sure the program is successful.”

As Jesse J. Holland reported for the Associated Press, “Obama spoke from the White House East Room flanked by teenagers involved in the Becoming a Man program to help at-risk boys in his hometown of Chicago. He said he sees himself in them.

” ‘I made bad choices. I got high, not always thinking about the harm it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short,’ Obama said.

“Under Obama’s initiative, businesses, foundations and community groups would coordinate their investments to come up with, or support, programs that keep youths in school and out of the criminal justice system, while improving their access to higher education. Several foundations pledged at least $200 million over five years to promote that goal.

“Meanwhile, Obama signed a presidential memorandum creating a government-wide task force to evaluate the effectiveness of various approaches, so that federal and local governments, community groups and businesses will have best practices to follow in the future. An online ‘What Works’ portal will provide public access to data about programs that improve outcomes for young minority men.