“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.
The biggest criticism of President Obama and his initiative is that it’s not a federal program that addresses the systemic issues across a range of policies that cause young men of color to face such daunting odds. As Columbia University professor Fredrick Harris wrote in a recent report for the Brookings Institution (pdf), “[E]xisting laws and practices that perpetuate the conditions that poor and working-class minority youth face will end up counteracting the good works that the My Brother’s Keeper initiative is trying to accomplish.”
As a result, there is only so much of an impact that this initiative can have. Not only are the root causes of the issue left unaddressed, but MBK has been in place for just two years, and that’s much too short a time frame to make a dent in a problem that was literally centuries in the making.
The president also appears to champion the respectability politics for which he occasionally takes heat. A significant part of the My Brother’s Keeper message to boys of color is to study hard, pull up their pants, and be twice as good because they cannot expect anyone to have any sympathy for them and their circumstances. On this score, he is not necessarily wrong, but the assessment is clearly incomplete. Again, without significant policy-reform proposals to accompany such guidance, this initiative seems to address only the margins of a much deeper problem.
Lastly, the focus on young men and boys of color ignores the numerous challenges facing young women and girls of color. Black girls are much more likely than their white counterparts to be suspended from school; they also face sexual harassment and violence, are not protected or supported the same way as their peers, and bear more family responsibilities at home. Let’s always remember that Renisha McBride and Sandra Bland met similar fates as Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. Any gains made for young black men will not be fully realized unless young black women are also helped.
But despite these shortcomings, My Brother’s Keeper can still be considered a success. It is unquestionable that the president has activated a network of people and businesses that have accepted his challenge. Many cities across the country—in every region, of every size and of varying demographics—have launched elements of My Brother’s Keeper tailored to the specific issues they are facing and the constituencies they serve. Not only are mayors taking the lead, but they are accompanied by black academics, churches and social action organizations, black fraternities and sororities, local businesses, and everyday citizens of all ethnicities and ages.
Next year, when My Brother’s Keeper celebrates its third anniversary, Barack Obama will no longer be president of the United States. But no matter who the next president is, the future of My Brother’s Keeper will not be in jeopardy. Less than a year ago, President Obama formed the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, a nonprofit organization with substantial corporate backing, to ensure that the resources and structure are in place to carry out the mission of helping young men and boys of color for years to come. And though the president can have no official involvement with it while still in office, there is little doubt that this will become his primary focus after he leaves the White House.
“The president has made very, very clear that this is lifelong legacy work for him,” Johnson said. “And that once he leaves office, among his priorities will be to continue to lead in this kind of work. There are certainly efforts under way to make sure that there will be ways the president can do this. So it’ll be one of Barack Obama’s legacies, postpresidency as well as during the remainder of his presidency, to continue to do this work.”
Still, unless structural racism is addressed, the future of black men and boys in America will look a lot as it does today. The issues are too vast and deep to be undone by philanthropic gestures and local goodwill, even with the president’s support. But the problem is too important to wait for a perfect solution; federal inaction cannot result in civic complacency.
On that summer day when the president wrestled with the verdict in the case of Trayvon Martin’s death, he said that the nation had some soul-searching to do on the race question. In this regard, he led by example. The result of his internal debate eventually turned on the fact that it was personal for him. He, too, had been followed in grocery stores and treated as a threat when just crossing the street. He, too, had grown up without a father and made several mistakes along the way. In his view, the primary difference, as he told the press that day, was that he “grew up in an environment that was a little bit more forgiving,” and had people who continued to encourage him and believe in him.
This is the difference that President Obama believes My Brother’s Keeper can make for thousands of young men and boys of color. It’s his personal attempt to marshal the power of the presidency and his historic accomplishment in helping them.
Ultimately, it may not be part of his presidential legacy, but he certainly hopes that it defines his personal one.
Also in the His Lasting Legacy series on The Root:
Theodore R. Johnson III is a former White House fellow. His writing focuses on race, society and politics. Follow him on Twitter.