WASHINGTON – If President Barack Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative expands educational and work opportunities for young Black and Hispanic males, but fails to address the burdens of structural racism that threaten their lives, the program might not succeed, some community activists believe.“Let’s say they do all the right things, let’s say they excel in the classroom, let’s say they are involved in community activities, but then they go out on the street and they are harassed by police, profiled and arrested,” said Walter Fields, executive editor of the NorthStar News a news website that caters to African American. “Or they go to college and they get a degree, then they go out on the labor market and they are discriminated against. How do we control that, after you have told these young men that they have to rise above it and be better, then they run into a system that is designed to cut them down?”
President Obama launched the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative in the East Room of the White House, joined by key players in business, philanthropy and public policy. Philanthropic foundations and private corporations have pledged $200 million dollars over the next five years in an effort to “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 president said.
Obama said that he was inspired to create the initiative following the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, Black teen who was pursued, shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchman in Sanford, Fla. Martin’s shooting and Zimmerman’s ultimate acquittal of murder, sparked nationwide protests and an investigation by the Justice Department.
Since then, a similar case has been in the news.
Michael Dunn, a White computer programmer, shot to death Jordan Davis, another Black teenager in Florida in the parking lot of a Jacksonville, Fla., convenience store following an argument over what Dunn described as “thug music” playing in the teen’s SUV.
Like George Zimmerman before him, Dunn was found not guilty of a first-degree murder charge in the death of Davis. Unlike Zimmerman, Dunn was convicted of three counts of attempted murder.
Jawanza Kunjufu, a prominent educated who has written extensively about Black males, said that he’s in total support of what the president is doing with his initiative, worries that financial support pledged so far will be enough to prevent more parents from mourning the loss of their young sons due to gun violence.
“I don’t know if money could have eliminated what happened to Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis,” said Kunjufu.
While some openly express doubts about the president’s new plan, many others applauded President Obama for raising the visibility of the startling racial disparities that exist in education, the labor market and the criminal justice system that cripple a generation that must shoulder the future economic prosperity of a country that has largely forgotten them.
By the time they reach fourth grade, 86 percent of Black boys are reading below grade level compared to 58 percent of White boys who read below proficiency levels. Even though the national graduation rate for Black males increased from 42 percent to 52 percent from 2001 -2010, according to a report on public education and Black males by the Schott Foundation, “It would take nearly 50 years for Black males to secure the same high school graduation rates as their White male peers.”
According to a 2011 report by the Children’s Defense Fund, “A Black child is only half as likely as a White child to be placed in a gifted and talented class. A Black child is more than one and a half times as likely as a White child to be placed in a class for students with emotional disturbances.”
An overwhelming majority of Black students enrolled in special education programs are males and at the other end of spectrum, White females are least likely to land in special education programs, said Kunjufu. Differences in learning styles between male and female students and an inability of teachers to relate to Black male students contribute to the stigmatization of the group targeted by the president’s new initiative.
According to a 2011 study by The National Center for Education Information (NCEI), a private, non-partisan research group in Washington, D.C. 84 percent of public school teachers are White and 7 percent are Black.
Black males account for 10 percent of Black teachers and less than 2 percent of all teachers, White females account for 85 percent of White teachers and more than 70 percent of all teachers.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), “when out-of-school suspension rates were examined by race, one in five black males and more than one in 10 black females were suspended in 2009-2010—higher than any other race.”
CRDC data also showed that Black students account for 18 percent of national student enrollment and 42 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 35 percent of arrests, compared to White students who account for more than half of all students, 25 percent of law enforcement referrals and 21 percent of arrests.
Kunjufu said that getting more Black male teachers into our nation’s classrooms has to be a part any strategy that seeks to provide better educational opportunities and outcomes for young Black males.
“It’s very important for students to see teachers that look like them,” said Kunjufu. “The question becomes, are school districts and superintendents willing to go the extra mile to recruit African American male teachers?”
Like others who have waited for a targeted program like this from the White House, Ron Daniels, president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century, a group that works for social, political, economic and reform that impacts the Black community, said that the “My Brother’s Keeper” programs have to be multi-faceted.
“It’s not just about mentoring. Mentoring by itself won’t end these problems,” said Daniels. “There will be some who will be able to change their behavior and to escape and to be successful, but to look for [solutions] alone absent structural issues is to virtually take a Booker T. Washington approach: clean up, brush up, paint up have good values look decent and everything will be fine.”
Daniels added: “Well, everything won’t be fine. It’ll take more than that.”
The Black community shouldn’t expect the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative to solve those structural issues alone.
Daniels said that Attorney General Eric Holder’s aggressive push to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, to reform mandatory sentencing guidelines, and to reduce the disparities in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine has to work in tandem with the “My Brother’s Keeper.”
Young Blacks continue to be over-represented in a criminal justice system that cost the United States economy $57 billion to $65 billion per year in lost output of goods and services related to depressed wages and underemployment of ex-offenders.
Even as the president urged business and civic leaders, members of the faith community and foundations to support this new initiative he often returned to a “no excuses” message directed squarely at the young Black and Hispanic males as he tip-toed lightly around the structural racism that will likely slow their at success and better lives. It’s a message that has generated eye rolling from Black thought leaders throughout his presidency.
“What the president is saying, in a very coded way is that, ‘Yeah, we know racism exists, but you have to rise above it,’” said Fields. “I don’t know how you rise above it. We’ve never risen above it. We’ve managed it, but we’ve never truly risen above it.”
Fields continued: “The difficulty in offering this critique is that there is so little done for this population that you hate to criticize anything that is done [them]. But when it comes from the most powerful elected official in the world, we have to hold him to a higher standard.” •