How Obama Plans to ‘Keep’ His ‘Brothers’

President Barack Obama delivers remarks about his My Brother’s Keeper initiative with students from Chicago’s Youth Guidance program, Becoming a Man, in the East Room at the White House, Feb. 27, 2014.
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The official launch of My Brother’s Keeper—the initiative President Barack Obama previewed in his State of the Union address, telling Americans, “I’m reaching out to some of America’s leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing especially tough odds to stay on track and reach their full potential”—kicked off with a ceremony in the White House East Room on Thursday.

Since the president first introduced the initiative, the White House has offered additional details, describing My Brother’s Keeper as “action in partnership with foundations, businesses and others to make sure that every young man of color who is willing to work hard and lift himself up has an opportunity to get ahead and reach his full potential.”


The question now is simple: How?

Partnerships and opportunities to get ahead for those young men who are currently behind sound promising, but they’re a tall order. It’s important now to understand the president’s plan for making the initiative work and to figure out who will benefit.

Here are some answers to questions about Obama’s plans for his “brothers.”

1. Does “of color” mean “black”? “The president announced that he was addressing issues facing ‘young men of color,’ but the press has been saying ‘black men,’’ notes Alexis McGill Johnson, whose American Values Institute, a grantee of My Brother’s Keeper foundation partner the Open Society institute, has worked on a campaign for black male achievement.


But it appears that “of color” doesn’t mean “black” to the White House; nor does it mean “all colors.” The materials associated with the event, along with senior administration officials who briefed reporters, described the focus of the initiative as “black and Hispanic young men.”

In today’s remarks, Obama used the phrases “black or brown” and “black and Latino.”


2. What inspired this? And why now? As Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett put it, “The bottom line is that there is an empirical reason to make sure we’re focusing on young men and boys of color.” She pointed to congressional data showing that black and Hispanic boys, regardless of socioeconomic background, suffer disparities in reading proficiency, school discipline, unemployment and involvement in the criminal-justice system.

“By almost every measure,” Obama said Thursday, “the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century are boys and young men of color.”


The administration has also highlighted Obama’s 2013 visit with members of the Chicago-based youth-guidance program Becoming a Man as inspiration for the undertaking. “I could see myself in these young men,” said the president. “The only difference was, I grew up in an environment that was a little more forgiving.”

3. What exactly is going to happen? Obama’s announcement today was couched in familiar themes about the above disparities, about his own upbringing and about his belief in the potential of all children to succeed. Also in the mix were his usual talking points on the importance of fathers being present and parents turning off the television, along with the “no excuses” personal-responsibility charge that’s now boilerplate for any messages he delivers directly to African-American audiences.


But two new, concrete efforts were rolled out. First, there’s the launch of a presidential task force chaired by Assistant to the President and Cabinet Secretary Broderick Johnson. The idea here is that various executive departments and agencies will work together to help determine which existing public and private efforts are working when it comes to young men of color, and how to enhance them. This includes an administration-wide “What Works” online portal to disseminate successful programs and practices that improve outcomes.

Then there’s what’s being called a “private-sector partnership.” The foundations involved in this effort have announced that over the next five years, they, along with peers in the philanthropy and business communities, will invest at least $200 million to “find and rapidly spread solutions” in White House-identified areas: early-childhood development and school readiness, parenting and parental engagement, third-grade literacy, educational opportunity and school-discipline reform, interactions with the criminal-justice system, ladders to jobs and economic opportunity, and healthy families and communities. The foundations’ first order of business—to be completed within the next 90 days—is to design a strategy and an infrastructure for how and where to invest the money.


4. So who gets to call the shots about where this money goes? The foundations joining President Obama include the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the California Endowment, the Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. Many, according to the White House, are members of the Executives’ Alliance to Expand Opportunities for Boys and Men of Color—a coalition of philanthropic institutions committed to leveraging philanthropy’s role in improving life outcomes for boys and men of color.

Business leaders and elected officials who met with Obama before Thursday’s event, including Magic Johnson and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, have already expressed their support for this effort.


5. Why young men and boys? Don’t girls need help, too? In response to a question about the initiative’s gender focus, Jarrett said, “What the data tells us is that boys and young men of color, regardless of economic status, are disproportionately at risk.” She pointed to the White House Council on Women and Girls as an example of where the administration is already addressing female-specific issues.

6. When can we expect to see results? “This is not a one-year proposition; it’s not a two-year proposition,” Obama said, signaling that the initiative will be a sustained effort that shouldn’t be expected to have measurable results in the short term.


7. What do people who work on this issue all the time think? Those already involved in this work say they’re pleased with the spotlight on the underlying issues, as much as they’re excited about whatever the concrete results may be. “The White House has a major voice, a bullhorn on this issue, and all of us who have been working on this issue will find a place to pivot around this so we can lift up the work together,” said American Values Institute’s Johnson.

“It is not lost on us that the president’s announcement comes weeks after the Department of Education and the Justice Department released guidance about racial disparities in school discipline,” said Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis in a statement released today. “We are heartened by his willingness to address racial inequities not only through words but through tangible actions.”


Regardless of the specific actions taken post-launch, Pastor Michael McBride, director of LifeLines to Healing, who attended the event, said, “We’ll take this moment to amplify that the bodies of our young black men and boys are valued.”

8. What happens to My Brother’s Keeper when Obama leaves office? Here’s how Jarrett responded to a question about whether this cause could be the first black president’s version of the Clinton Global Initiative: “He and the first lady care an enormous amount about these young children. They have not said specifically about how this would manifest itself, but [they have said that] this is a moral and social responsibility that will transcend the time that he’s president.”


It’s safe to say that this is a cause we’ll be hearing about for some time.

Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root’s senior staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.

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