The announcement was unusually personal and many thought quite heart-felt: at the end of February President Obama introduced a White House initiative he called “My Brother’s Keeper,” designed, the administration claimed, to empower boys and young men of color to meet the challenges and overcome the obstacles to success that they face disproportionately in US society. But when all the tears had been wiped away, what had the president actually proposed, and what did it mean?
He was joined in the East Room by General Colin Powell, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, Magic Johnson, and many “leaders from key national and regional philanthropic foundations and major businesses,” according to the White House.
President Obama cited a range of statistics that are by now drearily familiar: as recently as 2013 only 14 percent of Black boys and 18 percent of Hispanic boys scored proficient or above on the 4th grade reading component of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared to 42 percent of white boys and 21 percent of Black and Hispanic girls; youth who cannot read “proficiently” by third grade are four times less likely to graduate high school by 19; by the time students have reached 9th grade, 42 percent of Black male students have been suspended or expelled at least once as compared to 14 percent of white male students; while Black youth account for 16 percent of the youth population, they represent 28 percent of juvenile arrests, and 37 percent of the detained population. On and on: the life chances of a Black or Hispanic child in this country lag dramatically behind by almost every measure.
We’ve known this forever, so what’s new and what now? What is to be done? Here’s the plan:
“After months of conversation with a wide range of people, we’ve pulled together private philanthropies and businesses, mayors, state and local leaders, faith leaders, nonprofits, all…committed to creating more pathways to success, and we’re committed to building on what works.”
“While there may not be much of an appetite in Congress for sweeping new programs or major new initiatives right now, we all know we can’t wait. And so the good news is, folks in the private sector, who know how important boosting the achievement of young men of color is to this country, they are ready to step up.”
“Today, I’m pleased to announce that some of the most forward-looking foundations in America are looking to invest at least $200 million over the next five years…”
That’s $40 million a year of private money, less than half what the pentagon spends in a day: “Just to be clear, My Brother’s Keeper is not some new, big government program.”
In fact the government isn’t really a part of it:
“And in this effort, government cannot play the only or even the primary role. We can help give every child access to quality preschool and help them start learning from an early age, but we can’t replace the power of a parent who’s reading to that child.”
Yes, we’re still living in the bad old days of the popular, self-serving “culture of poverty” thesis—Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “social science” fig leaf used to cover up the naked White Supremacy beast—with its conceptualizing of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, and the full-throated attack on Black men as “dead-beat dads.” Remember the reactionary William Bennett declaring in 2001, “It is these absent men, above all, who deserve our censure and disesteem,” and Barack Obama saying in 2007, “there are a lot of men out there who need to stop acting like boys, who need to realize that responsibility does not end at conception, who need to know that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one.”
So the message to Black parents was explicit: Be better parents! For example:
“…nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son’s life…”
“Parents will have to parent and turn off the television and help with homework.”
And the message to young Black men was equally clear: Be better young Black men! For instance:
“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.”
“And addressing these issues will have to be a two-way bargain, because no matter how much the community chips in, it’s ultimately going to be up to these young men and all the young men who are out there to step up and seize responsibility for their own lives.”
The “two-way bargain” is actually a cliché hiding a one-way street, because the administration and the government are offering nothing beyond leading the cheers.
And if let’s assume (as many have said) that the president was merely exercising the power of the bully pulpit; OK, he might have turned and preached a bit to the political powers: end stand-your-ground now; abolish zero tolerance policies in schools; extend the earned-income tax credit to fathers; do away with 3-strikes, mandatory minimum, and for-profit prisons; create meaningful alternatives to incarceration; insist on generous and expansive arts programs in all public schools; push for equitable funding for schools; create a jobs-program on a grand scale to take up the necessary work that needs doing if we are to live in a humane society; on and on and on.
Realistically the president can’t get those things passed into law, you say?
OK, realistically he can’t get kids to follow his advice on how they dress and what they do after school, but that didn’t stop him from preaching.