Obama Lays the Groundwork for Post-Presidency Effort to Support Men of Color
On Monday, President Obama took perhaps the most significant action by a sitting U.S. president to directly address the nuanced needs of young black and Latino men. In a speech at New York City’s Lehman College, Obama introduced a new volunteer initiative that will be a key platform for My Brother’s Keeper, a project that has galvanized the business, philanthropic, and government communities to develop initiatives that empower young men of color.
The president announced the creation of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, a private entity headed by Joe Echevarria, former CEO of Deloitte, the global consulting firm. The new alliance will use $80 million in private funds to develop programs that empower and inspire young men of color.
“If we’re going to be successful in addressing some of the challenges that young men of color face around the country, [their] voices have to be part of how we design programs and how we address these issues,” the president said. “Because they’ve got a lot to say, and what they say is powerful and makes a big difference.”
The details of exactly how the alliance will work are unclear, but it’s already got a high-profile roster of participants. The list includes singer John Legend, former NBA star Alonzo Mourning, prison reformer Bryan Stevenson, and Sen. Cory Booker.
The announcement comes at a crucial moment for America’s discussion of race. For much of the last two weeks, the country has been gripped by the unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died mysteriously after being taken into police custody. Protests against police brutality have become commonplace in recent years as high-profile incidents like those in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; and North Charleston, South Carolina, have forced the president to speak out.
My Brother’s Keeper was formed last year, and already it has moved more than 200 mayors, public officials, and private companies to commit more than $300 million in grants that will be funneled to schools and service projects. The White House has quietly managed the details of the organization’s development. It is clear, however, that the organization will be a key part of the president’s legacy—and his post–White House work.
As the country’s first black president, Obama has been a symbol of America’s hopeful—and, often, contentious—discussion about racial inequity. Obama first gained national prominence with his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, in which he touted the benefits of our country’s diversity. Four years later, his historic run for president included a notable Philadelphia speech on race, which called for Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to push for a “more perfect union.” His 2008 campaign carefully navigated the tricky matter of race—and, in fact, deliberately tried to avoid the messy aspects of it. For much of his first term, Obama rarely dealt with racial issues publicly. Then came the 2012 case of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager fatally shot in Sanford, Florida. Martin’s death ultimately moved the president to say, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
By the time Obama announced My Brother’s Keeper in February 2014, he—and the country—had entered a much more deliberate conversation about race. “I could see myself in these young men,” he said about visiting a group of young black men at the largely black Hyde Park Academy on Chicago’s South Side. “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.”
Obama’s efforts have not escaped criticism. The initiative has been criticized heavily for leaving out the experiences of young women of color, who struggle in school, are victims of domestic violence, and are also overrepresented in the criminal justice system.
Other critics worry that the president’s initiative is too shallow for the deep injustices faced by men of color. Eddie Glaude Jr., a professor of religion and the chair of Princeton University’s African American studies department, called the effort a “band-aid for a gunshot wound.”
“It may morph into something substantive,” Glaude told TakePart, acknowledging that it’s easily the most far-reaching effort made by any sitting U.S. president to deal with race. “But the insistence on leveraging private partnerships to insist on mentoring only touches at the margins of what’s impacting communities of color.”