President Barack Obama appears to be finally making good on a long-standing promise that he made to Black leaders the evening before his first election. That promise was to try to "change this community."
Political observers have gasped at the frankness of his speech last week announcing the new "My Brother’s Keeper" initiative to strengthen America’s Black men and boys by forming a task force that will make recommendations on the investment of millions of dollars into organizations that serve men and boys of color. The initiatives will be financed by foundations and organizations already targeting this population.
"This is an issue of national importance - it’s as important as any issue that I work on. It’s an issue that goes to the very heart of why I ran for President - because if America stands for anything, it stands for the idea of opportunity for everybody; the notion that 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," Obama said. "And that’s the idea behind everything that I’ll do this year, and for the rest of my presidency. Because at a time when the economy is growing, we’ve got to make sure that every American shares in that growth, not just a few."
Given grumbling from some that President Obama hasn’t done enough specifically for the African-Americans who elected him, some political observers have now facetiously questioned whether he has finally become "The Black President".
Actually, President Obama’s announcement appears strategically – and safely - placed within the second term of his presidency. On Nov. 3, 2008, the eve of his first election, he said the following words to key Black leaders in an exclusive telephone conference:
"Everyone under the sound of my voice understands the struggles we face. Everyone understands the fierce urgency of now. You all know what’s at stake in this election." Obama then listed a string of issues disparately faced by African-Americans, including the struggle to recruit good teachers, the struggle against under-funded schools, double-digit jobless rates and having to work two and three jobs to make ends meet. Those issues mirror the issues outlined in his introduction to "My Brother’s Keeper" last week.
"I mention these issues because this community, our community, the African-American community, during these challenging times, suffers more than most in this country," he said in the 2008 call. "Double digit inflation, double digit unemployment, stagnant wages, our kids are more likely to drop out, more likely to be in jail, more likely to die. We’re going to have to do better. And if we continue the momentum we’ve seen across this country over the last several weeks, we can do better…I’m convinced that not only are we going to change this country, but we’re going to change this community," he said.
Now that Obama has been re-elected, some believe such programs as "My Brother’s Keeper" the "Promise Zones" announced in January, and his recent White House meeting with Black leaders represent his coming full circle on that election-eve promise.
"The Lawyers’ Committee commends President Obama for following through on his commitment to take bold and necessary actions in addressing decades-long issues facing communities of color, and for taking an inter-agency approach in tackling disparities and challenges in education, employment, health and nutrition, and related issues, particularly affecting African American and Hispanic boys and young men," said Lawyers’ Committee President and Executive Director Barbara Arnwine, who was present at the White House during last week’s announcement. "Creating pathways to success and fostering collaborative business and community relationships are indeed vital to this process."
Accolades are being heard from grassroots to Congress. "This unprecedented initiative will bring organizations together across public and private sectors to support young men of color in effective and innovative ways," said Congressional Black Caucus Chair Marcia L. Fudge. "Statistics show that African-American males have a greater risk of being in categories that prevent them from realizing their full potential, such as having higher incarceration and dropout rates. But we know this is neither due to a lack of ability nor a lack of will, but a lack of opportunity and support."
With an audience of dozens of African-American and Latino teens behind him and an East Room audience of mostly men in front of him, Obama outlined what "My Brother’s Keeper" will do.
"After months of conversation with a wide range of people, we’ve pulled together private philanthropies and businesses, mayors, state and local leaders, faith leaders, nonprofits, all who are committed to creating more pathways to success. And we’re committed to building on what works," he said.
In a nutshell, foundations will invest hundreds of millions of dollars over the next five years into programs that work to impact key areas of social development, such as "early child development and school readiness, parenting and parent engagement, 3rd 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.".
Among the foundations, represented at the East Room announcement were The Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Atlantic Philanthropies, Bloomberg Philanthropies, The California Endowment, The Ford Foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Open Society Foundations, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and The Kapor Center for Social Impact.
The President pointed to statistics to illustrate the need for the initiative:
"If you’re African American, there’s about a one in two chance you grow up without a father in your house…If you’re Latino, you have about a one in four chance. We know that boys who grow up without a father are more likely to be poor, more likely to underperform in school."
"As a Black student, you are far less likely than a White student to be able to read proficiently by the time you are in 4th grade. By the time you reach high school, you’re far more likely to have been suspended or expelled. There’s a higher chance you end up in the criminal justice system, and a far higher chance that you are the victim of a violent crime.
Fewer young black and Latino men participate in the labor force compared to young white men. And all of this translates into higher unemployment rates and poverty rates as adults."
Obama concluded, "And the worst part is we’ve become numb to these statistics. We’re not surprised by them. We take them as the norm. We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life, instead of the outrage that it is. That’s how we think about it. It’s like a cultural backdrop for us - in movies and television. We just assume, of course, it’s going to be like that. But these statistics should break our hearts. And they should compel us to act."