Two things have always impressed me about the My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) initiative unveiled by President Obama nearly six months ago. First, it specifically focuses on young men and boys of color. Second, it is a public-private partnership that ensures efforts will continue long after Obama has vacated the White House.
The $104 million announced today in mostly private funding from foundations and corporations shows the seriousness with which they take the nascent national initiative. For instance, AT&T and the National Basketball Association are working on mentorship programs and dropout prevention. The Emerson Collective is funding an effort to find and design the schools of tomorrow (the better to learn). And the CitiFoundation is creating a 10-city national volunteer program to help 25,000 young people prepare for college and careers. This is on top of the $200 million committed by foundations when MBK was launched in February and the $100 million invested in research and programs before that.
Just why this focus, money and effort are needed on behalf of young men and boys of color is plainly apparent in the statistics in the MBK task force report released in May.
- 23.2 percent of Hispanics, 25.8 percent of Black, and 27 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives (AIAN) live in poverty, compared to 11.6 percent of White Americans.
- Black, American Indian, and Hispanic children are between six and nine times more likely than white children to live in areas of concentrated poverty. This compounds the effects of poverty, and further limits pathways to success.
- Roughly two-thirds of Black and one-third of Hispanic children live with only one parent. A father’s absence increases the risk of their child dropping out of school. Blacks and Hispanics raised by single moms are 75 percent and 96 percent respectively more likely to drop out of school.
- We see significant high school dropout rates—as high as 50 percent in some school districts—including among boys and young men from certain Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander populations.
- During the summer months (June-August) of 2013, just 17 percent of Black teenage boys (ages 16-19) and 28 percent of Hispanic teenage boys were employed, compared to 34 percent of White teenage boys. Overall in 2013, half of young black men (ages 20-24) were employed, compared to over two-thirds of young white men. This employment gap persists as men get older.
- While only 6 percent of the overall population, Black males accounted for 43 percent of murder victims in 2011. Among youth ages 10 to 24, homicide is the leading cause of death for Black males and also among the leading causes of death for Hispanics, and AIANs.
- In 2012, Black males were 6 times more likely to be imprisoned than White males. Hispanic males were two and half times more likely.
As Obama said in February, these statistics should rattle the conscience and compel us as a nation to act. Improvement in any of these indices not only helps young men and boys of color but also the nation, whose economy and communities would thrive on their addition to the workforce.
That’s not to say that young women and girls of color don’t need attention. The stats for them in the categories above are just as dire, as folks have been telling the White House since it unveiled MBK. But it’s not as though the White House is unmindful of or has been mute on the concerns and needs of women and girls. And while I understand the criticism of MBK, we have seen plenty of good ideas, programs and initiatives fail because in trying to do everything and be everything to everybody, they fail at helping anyone. So I’m all for the president using his convening power, bully pulpit and personal connection to put the focus on young men and boys of color and then using the knowledge gained to help others.
“It’s an unusual situation in which the lens of looking at the situation of how we can help boys and young men of color can inform how we help all children,” Broderick Johnson, assistant to the president and cabinet secretary who chaired the MBK task force, told me last month. “It’s pretty rare to have it set up that way.”
Jim Shelton, executive director of the task force, talked about this from his vantage point as a deputy secretary of education. “In special education they have this thing called ‘universal design for learning.’ It basically says that once you figure out how to design something well for a special-needs population you can actually take those design principles and do it in a way that actually benefits everyone,” he said. “I very much believe this process is like that. What are the specific needs of this population, boys and young men of color, but in doing so [identifying those needs] we are creating an infrastructure that actually will benefit everyone.” He went on to say, “That will allow you to identify vulnerable populations who are disproportionately boys and young men of color, but are not exclusively boys and young men of color. That will benefit girls of color. That will benefit young white boys who have issues that are causing them to be chronically absent or to be on a path to dropping out of school.”
Creating an infrastructure to eventually help all children achieve their potential, where the only thing standing in their way is their own drive, determination and discipline, is something we all should support. And if the way to get there is to start helping struggling young men and boys of color, then let’s do it.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj