At-Risk Youths: What Can Obama Really Do?

An antiviolence protest in Chicago (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
An antiviolence protest in Chicago (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

(The Root) — The teen years.

It's that time we spend becoming the adults we are today. Days are supposed to be filled with school, dating, friends, SATs and growing up. But that idyllic scenario doesn't ring true for all. Not for one group between the ages of 15 and 19, who may not make it out of their teen years alive.


For black male teenagers, the leading cause of death is homicide.

According to research by the Children's Defense Fund, in 2008 and 2009 black children and teenagers made up 45 percent of all young people killed by guns in America. And they did this despite being only 15 percent of the U.S. population.


That, along with the conclusion of the trial involving the shooting death of another black teen — Trayvon Martin — was on the mind of some House Democrats when they recently met with President Obama to talk about at-risk youths.

During the session, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) asked the president what he planned to do to help black youths in light of the George Zimmerman verdict, and President Obama responded that there would be action to help at-risk youths. From Politico:

Obama told Cummings that it was a "good time" to examine disparities in the criminal justice system, and efforts to help black, Asian, and Hispanic men and boys. The president added that officials need to look at what can be done to aid at-risk youth in general.

"We're doing that," Obama said, according to a source in the room. The president said some solutions could come without having to pass legislation, and that he was consulting with Attorney General Eric Holder on what options the White House has on the matter, sources said.

While that sounds very good and promising, there was a part of this answer that concerned me: "Some solutions could come without having to pass legislation." What can the executive branch actually do, all on its own, to stem the tide of violence that plagues the streets of cities like Chicago, Detroit or my hometown of St. Louis, Mo.?

I can understand wanting to circumvent Congress. Even the most banal of legislature gets loaded down, beaten down and backed up in a cacophony of partisan attacks and counterattacks. How do you expect a body of government to do something about black youth violence when some of the body politic is representing constituents who believe that black people bring this horror upon themselves and should be left alone to deal with it?


Right now the White House and the Department of Justice haven't yet rolled out their plans for at-risk youths. It is expected that Obama will unveil his proposals during the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, coming this Aug. 27 and 28.

If past is prologue, the president might talk about bolstering the Becoming a Man program, a Chicago-based initiative tied to low-income high schools, as mentioned on RealClearPolitics. Obama might do more with the Youth Jobs+ program that he launched in the spring to encourage summer employment for teens.


He might discuss appointing a full-time Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms director to help bolster the agency that's supposed to manage gun control in the states. But the agency hasn't had one in six years because of congressional machinations. Perhaps if there were a full-time ATF director (with a staff to back the position), those who buy and sell guns illegally could actually be prosecuted under existing laws.

Maybe the president will endorse putting more money in programs like Head Start or will turn to programs that have worked in some cities and look for funding to help duplicate them in other cities and municipalities.


While some may find these actions to be small ball compared with the enormity of the youth-violence problem, any action is preferred to the usual "action": words. It seems there are always words about youth violence. Words of sadness. Words of shame. Words of hope that somehow this can be turned around.

The September covers of Ebony magazine declare loudly how we need to "Save Our Sons" and how "We Are All Trayvon" as the magazine itself jumps into the conversation, pushing for words to become action. But I worry about what physically can be done — without Congress, without grand, sweeping changes — when you have statistics like this from the Children's Defense Fund: In 2011, eight children died of violence every day, and four of those eight were black.


I don't know if another mentoring program or another "national discussion about gun violence" or a reinvestment in Head Start will solve what was created by systemic poverty, chronic unemployment, poor infrastructure, failing schools and lack of community resources in impoverished areas.

Our kids don't kill other kids in a vacuum. Their decisions come out of the myriad complications that come from growing up black in America. I don't know if President Obama will come up with something that he and the executive branch alone can do to fix the problem, but I know a lot of people who would like to see him try.


To try to act and not just give us words, so that more of our boys can make it out of their teen years unscathed. So that more of our boys can go from being teens to men.

Danielle C. Belton is a freelance journalist and TV writer, founder of the blog and editor-at-large of Clutch magazine.

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