When Barack Obama was first elected president he became an instant role model for black children across the country, particularly black boys. Black parents made sure of that. The I-never-thought-I-would-see-a-black-president-in-my-lifetime mantra was quickly discarded and black parents started pointing to Obama’s incredible journey to the White House as proof that their sons could also write their own amazing life stories.
But narratives, particularly political narratives, can be very fluid for presidents still in office. Especially for a president expected to embody the dreams and reduce the burdens of millions of black Americans. Over the last few years Obama has taken heat from some black critics for not directly addressing the unique problems that plague black boys and young men, and not doing enough to help them overcome those problems.
While I understood the critics’ focus on black males, and have even written about the president’s potential to profoundly influence black boys’ self-image, I was still sometimes frustrated that black girls were so often missing from the conversation.
Obama seemed to answer his critics with his new initiative called My Brother’s Keeper. The White House says the plan is designed “to empower boys and young men of color” by identifying and promoting programs that provide them effective mentoring, skills-building and support networks. In doing so the president – at least to my mind – also gave a silent and unintentional shout-out to black girls, who stand to benefit if this initiative ultimately leads to a larger population of well-educated, well-rounded, well-employed black young men to date and eventually marry.
At a time when black marriage rates are falling, the attempt to tackle the challenges faced by black boys and young men may also have far-reaching implications for black families and black communities over time.
As the White House noted, young black men make up a disproportionate share of the unemployed and those involved in the criminal justice system. (According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 4,347 of every 100,000 black men were in jail or prison in 2010.) They’re also more than six times as likely to be victims of murder and account for almost half of the country’s murder victims each year – outcomes, the White House correctly noted, that seriously undermine family and community stability.
Recent reports say black families are in decline and studies point to the absence of fathers as one of the main reasons. The Census Bureau reports that 24 million children in the United States – one of three – are living in homes without their biological fathers, 5.6 million of those children are black. What’s more, unmarried black women, especially those with children, are economically worse off and so are their children. Almost every measurement of child well-being indicates that children that grow up in homes without fathers fare poorly, and countless reports and studies bear this out.
Meanwhile marriage rates among African-Americans have fallen steeply in the last 50 years, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. Today just 31 percent of blacks ages 18 and older are married compared to 61 percent in 1960, according to the report. (Marriage rates have fallen among all groups in the U.S. but the drop has been larger among blacks.)
The reasons for the declining rates are varied and complex and there’s no firm consensus on the extent of the problem and the causes. The data about black marriage rates is also extremely controversial because the numbers have been used to draw sweeping generalizations, and often inaccurate and hurtful conclusions about the status of black women, particularly professional black women. (Just recall the news stories about professional black women having a higher chance of being hit by meteoroids or being kidnapped by terrorists than getting married.)
Statistics and studies aside, I’d just like for my smart and accomplished 14 year-old and 21 year-old nieces, and other girls and young women like them, not to grow up expecting to be perpetually single because there aren’t enough marriageable black men around. Unmarried and childless professional black women may be widely considered a statistical norm but young black girls should not be made to believe it’s the only possibility.
Of course marriage doesn’t have to be the ultimate goal. Black girls can grow up to be blissfully single women, perfectly capable of making their way in the world without relying on men. They’re also free to date and marry outside their race or within their same gender. In any case these young women, and for that matter older black women, should have the same choices as other women.
Still, if marrying someone of the same race and having children with them is important to some of these young black women, having a wide pool of smart, accomplished, ambitious, and socially-conscious young black men to choose from is a good thing. Young men unafraid of commitment, engaged in work that is meaningful and rewarding, and concerned about their neighbors and communities are the sort of men with whom these young women can form healthy relationships, build good lives, and create strong families and communities.
The work of My Brother’s Keeper, if serious and sustained, can possibly create this alternate reality in the years to come. That’s a big “if,” however, given the initiative’s modest parameters and the major structural social and economic barriers that often hinder the success of black boys and young men.
No amount of exhorting black young men to take personal responsibility, work hard, adjust their attitudes and make good choices – all good and necessary advice the president offered to the black and Latino young men present during the White House ceremony announcing the initiative – will help them “overcome obstacles and achieve their dreams” if the obstacles are too powerful and the walls are too high for them to breach.
As the father of two black girls and someone who grew up without his biological father, I’m guessing Obama understands the importance of his presence in his daughters’ lives. It would be great to see the current generation of black young men also grow up to become positive male role models for the boys and the girls of the next generation.
Not everyone who wants to can become president, but almost anyone who wants to can become a good boyfriend, partner, husband, or father under the right conditions and with strong support. I hope My Brother’s Keeper is successful at providing that support and gains additional backing from businesses and foundations across the country because as much as I’m rooting for good outcomes for black boys, I’m rooting just as hard for the future of black girls.
Marjorie Valbrun is a journalist in Washington.