From the moment President Obama walked into the East Room for the “My Brothers Keeper” event, you could tell this initiative was personal for him. For he knows, as all African Americans know, that when you’re a black male you’re not allowed to make mistakes, innocent or otherwise. Youthful indiscretions can turn into lifetime liabilities if they don’t get you killed. And you have to come to terms with being viewed as a problem. One that is best ignored or incarcerated or both depending on where you live.

Obama was introduced by Christian Champagne, one of the young men he met at the “Becoming a Man” program in Chicago last year. The president shared his story with the at-risk boys in the program. The story he told them was one he recounted yesterday at the White House.

I explained to them that when I was their age I was a lot like them.  I didn’t have a dad in the house.  And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time.  I made bad choices.  I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do.  I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have.  I made excuses.  Sometimes I sold myself short.
And the point was I could see myself in these young men.  And the only difference is that I grew up in an environment that was a little bit more forgiving, so when I made a mistake the consequences were not as severe.  I had people who encouraged me — not just my mom and grandparents, but wonderful teachers and community leaders — and they’d push me to work hard and study hard and make the most of myself….They never gave up on me, and so I didn’t give up on myself.
I told these young men my story then, and I repeat it now because I firmly believe that every child deserves the same chances that I had.

“My Brother’s Keeper” is Obama’s two-pronged, public-private effort to make those chances possible and available for young men and boys of color. Over the next five years, foundations will invest $250 million on top of the $100 million already invested in research and proven programs around the country that help young men of color at critical moments in their development. Corporations will also be involved. In addition, Obama signed a presidential memorandum that established the “My Brother’s Keeper Task Force,” which is tasked with determining “what we can do right now to improve the odds for boys and young men of color, and make sure our agencies are working more effectively with each other, with those businesses, with those philanthropies, and with local communities to implement proven solutions.”

The statistics rattled off by the president make the case for his initiative.

  • “During the first three years of life, a child born into a low-income family hears 30 million fewer words than a child born into a well-off family….And if a black or Latino kid isn’t ready for kindergarten, he’s half as likely to finish middle school with strong academic and social skills.”
  • “If a child can’t read well by the time he’s in 3rd grade, he’s four times less likely to graduate from high school by age 19 than one who can.  And if he happens to be poor, he’s six times less likely to graduate.”
  • “We know that Latino kids are almost twice as likely as white kids to be suspended from school.  Black kids are nearly four times as likely.  And if a student has been suspended even once by the time they’re in 9th grade they are twice as likely to drop out.”
  • “We know that students of color are far more likely than their white classmates to find themselves in trouble with the law. If a student gets arrested, he’s almost twice as likely to drop out of school. By making sure our criminal justice system doesn’t just function as a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails, we can help young men of color stay out of prison, stay out of jail.”

And then there are the harrowing murder statistics. According to the White House, “African American and Hispanic young men are more than six times as likely to be victims of murder than their white peers — and account for almost half of the country’s murder victims each year.”

Throughout his remarks, Obama correctly cast the goals of “My Brother’s Keeper” as an American imperative. “[T]he worst part is we’ve become numb to these statistics.  We’re not surprised by them.  We take them as the norm,” he said. “We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life, instead of the outrage that it is….[T]hese statistics should break our hearts.  And they should compel us to act.”

He went on to say, “I believe the continuing struggles of so many boys and young men — the fact that too many of them are falling by the wayside, dropping out, unemployed, involved in negative behavior, going to jail, being profiled — this is a moral issue for our country.  It’s also an economic issue for our country. After all, these boys are a growing segment of our population.  They are our future workforce.  When, generation after generation, they lag behind, our economy suffers.  Our family structure suffers.  Our civic life suffers.  Cycles of hopelessness breed violence and mistrust.  And our country is a little less than what we know it can be.”

Don’t get the wrong idea. The president isn’t letting young men of color off the hook. After making the moral case for the nation to stop ignoring the extraordinary burdens weighing them down, the president put them on notice.

Part of my message, part of our message in this initiative is “no excuses.”  Government and private sector and philanthropy and all the faith communities — we all have a responsibility to help provide you the tools you need; we’ve got to help you knock down some of the barriers that you experience. That’s what we’re here for.  But you’ve got responsibilities, too.
And I know you can meet the challenge — many of you already are — if you make the effort.  It may be hard, but you will have to reject the cynicism that says the circumstances of your birth or society’s lingering injustices necessarily define you and your future.  It will take courage, but you will have to tune out the naysayers who say the deck is stacked against you, you might as well just give up — or settle into the stereotype.
It’s not going to happen overnight, but you’re going to have to set goals and you’re going to have to work for those goals.  Nothing will be given to you.  The world is tough out there, there’s a lot of competition for jobs and college positions, and everybody has to work hard.  But I know you guys can succeed.  We’ve got young men up here who are starting to make those good choices because somebody stepped in and gave them a sense of how they might go about it.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but there was not a dry eye at my seat. Everyone, no matter who you are, wants to know that they matter to someone. That someone has high expectations for them and pushes them to meet them. That someone cares as much when they succeed as when they fail. That that someone is the president of the United States must mean the world to Champagne, his classmates arrayed behind Obama and those who heard or will hear his words. Now it is up to them to make him, all of us, proud.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj