President Obama rarely refers to his race and has gotten some criticism from minority groups for not doing enough to help African Americans during his time in the White House.
But the president has wisely been reticent about personal racial issues, saying he is every American’s president. And given that the very notion of a black man serving as the U.S. president still makes some people in this country apoplectic, Mr. Obama is right to play down race while in office. But for once, he put the issue front and center last week in announcing an initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, aimed at empowering boys and young men of color to help them succeed in life.
Referring to his own youth, Mr. Obama talked about growing up without a father present in his life and lamented that so many minority children — especially black children — are in the same boat today. “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,” he told a gathering of Chicago teens and others at the White House on Thursday.
Calling the challenge of ensuring success for young men of color a “moral issue,” the president said the idea came to him after the killing of Trayvon Martin, the Miami Gardens teenager shot by George Zimmerman in 2012. After Trayvon’s death the president made an exception to his usual reticence, saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
Mr. Obama said that black boys are more likely to be suspended from school, less likely to be able to read and almost certain to encounter the criminal-justice system either as a victim or a perpetrator. Statistics cited on the White House website tell the story: Black youths account for 16 percent of the country’s youth population, but they represent 28 percent of all juvenile arrests. While just over 6 percent of the overall population, black males of all ages accounted for 43 percent of the nation’s murder victims in 2011. Only 14 percent of black boys and 18 percent of Hispanic boys scored proficient or above on the fourth-grade reading component of the National Assessment of Education Progress, compared with 42 percent of white boys and 21 percent of black and Hispanic girls in 2013.
The initiative is less about the government and more about uniting philanthropic foundations, businesses, faith-based communities and youth-help groups under one umbrella to support and promote programs proven to work in empowering at-risk minority boys. Several foundations have put up $150 million for the initiative and committed at least another $200 million over five years.
Mr. Obama also challenged black men to do better, saying they must not make excuses for their failures or blame society for poor decisions they have made. And he rightly acknowledged that there are no easy or quick solutions here, noting that the initiative would take years of investment and effort by many. Very true.
Helping young black and Hispanic men reach their full potential is at the heart of countless programs run by public schools, law-enforcement agencies and groups funded by the United Way all over the country. Some succeed, some don’t. Yet by simply using his bully pulpit and his own experiences, President Obama has amplified and given new impetus to recognizing and confronting this endemic American challenge.