A group of prominent black men — 210 so far — have written an open letter to President Obama, asking that he consider the plight of young women of color in tandem with his administration’s focus on young men of color. Signed by scholars, ministers and activists, the letter comes as the White House announced this week that former basketball star and entrepreneur Earvin “Magic” Johnson will co-chair “My Brother’s Keeper,” a $200 million public- and private-sector effort that will direct resources to black and Hispanic boys.
The signers of the letter, among them actor Danny Glover and civil rights activist James M. Lawson and leading academics, write to Obama that they were “were surprised and disappointed that your commitments express empathy to only half of our community — men and boys of color.”
We write as African American men who have supported your presidency, stood behind you when the inevitable racist challenges to your authority have emerged, and have understood that our hopes would be tempered by the political realities that you would encounter. While we continue to support your presidency, we write both out of a sense of mutual respect and personal responsibility to address what we believe to be the unfortunate missteps in the My Brothers Keeper initiative (MBK). In short, in lifting up only the challenges that face males of color, MBK — in the absence of any comparable initiative for females — forces us to ask where the complex lives of Black women and Black girls fit into the White House’s vision of racial justice?
Announced in February, “My Brother’s Keeper” is a two pronged effort that seeks to leverage the private sector as well as the administration, which has been evaluating which programs most effectively address the needs of black and brown men and boys.
In his initial announcement, Obama talked in unusually personal terms about his own sometimes wayward childhood, smoking pot and not always focusing on school or the consequences of his actions. But his environment was more forgiving, he recalled. Obama has frequently been criticized for not doing enough to address the lingering effects of the nation’s race-based policies, focusing on symbolism and speeches, rather than action.
On Friday, he described the aim of “My Brother’s Keeper”:
“The idea … was that there are a lot of folks that want to do something, but we hadn’t created a platform, a mechanism to gather all those resources together, concentrate and focus on them, get good data, figure out what the best practices are, and then go out there and implement,” he said at the White House. “And so what I did was assign a process for us to inventory everything that’s already being done to help young boys of color and men of color to succeed, to have every agency — from Justice Department to Education to HUD to USDA — look at how they could contribute to the process to make sure that we’ve got the best data possible, and then to report back to me so that we can have a plan of attack.”
Also Friday, the White House released a 60-page task force report that outlined recommendations, including ensuring access to early education, eliminating early suspensions, implementing early health care and screenings, and expanding access to higher education and job training.
Underscoring Obama’s singular focus on black and brown boys with “My Brother’s Keeper,” the Congressional Black Caucus on Thursday held an event titled “Educational Success for Black Men and Boys in a Post Brown v. Board of Education Era.” She The People reached out to the organizers via e-mail and asked, “What about black women and girls?” but never got a response.
The social, cultural and economic experiences of black women are well known:
- Nationally, 12 percent of black girls received at least one in-school suspension, whereas the rate for white girls is 2 percent. For white boys it is 6 percent.
- Black women are especially likely to be a victim of violence in the United States. In fact, no woman is more likely to be murdered in this country today than a black woman. No woman is more likely to be raped than a black woman. And no woman is more likely to be beaten, either by a stranger or by someone she loves and trusts, than a black woman.
- One in 100 African American women are in prison and black girls represent the fastest-growing segment of the juvenile population in secure confinement.
- 60 percent of young black women graduate high school in four years, according to the National Women’s Law Center reports, compared to 78 percent of young white women.
The letter, signed by prominent academics from top universities, argues that the administration, with “My Brother’s Keeper,” is ignoring the intersection of race, class and gender, and criticizes the administration for collecting data solely on men of color: “What might we find out about the scope, depth and history of our structural impediments, if we also required the collection of targeted data for Black women and girls?”
As African Americans, and as a nation, we have to be as concerned about the experiences of single Black women who raise their kids on sub-poverty wages as we are about the disproportionate number of Black men who are incarcerated. We must care as much about Black women who are the victims of gender violence as we do about Black boys caught up in the drug trade. We must hold up the fact that Black women on average make less money and have less wealth than both White women and Black men in the United States just as we must focus on the ways in which Black men and women are disproportionately excluded from many professions.
Others have suggested also suggested “My Sister’s Keeper.”
This week, as part of the annual White House Science Fair, senior White House aides did focus on women and girls in the STEM fields, particularly in under-represented groups. The White House also launched in 2009 the first ever Council on Women and Girls, headed by top Obama aide, Valerie Jarrett and Tina Tchen, Michelle Obama’s chief of staff.
She The People reached out to the White House for a response but has not heard back.
Obama first announced his intention to put a high-level focus on black boys and men in the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict, which sparked anger among many, particularly African-Americans.
On Friday he said that over the next weeks his administration would roll out additional commitments and findings from their work.
“But the bottom line is this: As we approach Father’s Day, I’m just reminded that I am only here because a bunch of folks invested in me. We’ve got a huge number of kids out there who have as much talent, and more talent than I had, but nobody is investing in them,” he said. “And I want to make sure that I use this platform, and every Cabinet member here wants to make sure that they use the tools that they’ve got, so that these young men, young boys, know somebody cares about them, somebody is thinking about them, and that they can succeed, and making America stronger as a consequence.”
UPDATE: Jarrett responded to She the People Saturday afternoon, saying that under the Council of Women and girls, many of the issues that are important to women of color are being addressed, like the pay gap as well as linking young black and brown girls with mentors. As well, the work and data collection done by “My Brother’s Keeper,” will be used to inform other initiatives throughout the administration.
“President Obama created the White House Council on Women and Girls in March of 2009. The purpose of the Council is to ensure that expanding opportunity for women and girls is a priority in all of the Administration’s policies and programs that it develops, and all of the legislation that the President supports,” she said in an e-mailed statement. “The recommendations in the My Brother’s Keeper report will build on these efforts by creating more opportunity for girls and boys of all backgrounds because as the President strongly believes, we need to improve the odds for every child in America.”