Obama Starts Initiative for Young Black Men, Noting His Own Experience
By Michael D. Shear
WASHINGTON — President Obama spoke in unusually personal terms at the White House on Thursday about how he got high as a teenager and was at times indifferent to school as he deplored what he called America’s numbness to the plight of young black men.
Drawing on the power of his own racial identity in a way he seldom does as president, Mr. Obama sought to connect his personal narrative about growing up without a father to that of a generation of black youth in the United States who he said faced higher odds of failure than their peers.
“I didn’t have a dad in the house,” Mr. Obama said as he announced a $200 million, five-year initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, to help black youth. “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.”
Mr. Obama said the idea for My Brother’s Keeper occurred to him in the aftermath of the killing of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager whose death two years ago sparked a roiling national debate about race and class. He called the challenge of ensuring success for young men of color a “moral issue for our country” as he ticked off the statistics: black boys who are more likely to be suspended from school, less likely to be able to read, and almost certain to encounter the criminal justice system as either a perpetrator or a victim.
“We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life, instead of the outrage that it is,” Mr. Obama told an audience of business leaders, politicians, philanthropists, young black men from a Chicago support program, and Mr. Martin’s parents. “It’s like a cultural backdrop for us in movies, in television. We just assume, of course it’s going to be like that.”
“These statistics should break our hearts,” he added. “And they should compel us to act.”
Mr. Obama’s remarks come as the end of his time in office is in sight, with the president mindful of the legacy that his administration will leave behind on race and other civil rights issues like same-sex marriage and immigration. Mr. Obama has embraced the right of gay men and lesbians to marry, and Eric H. Holder Jr., his attorney general, has aggressively sought to ensure that all eligible Americans have access to the ballot box.
Although Mr. Obama nods on occasion to his history-making status as the nation’s first black president, he has sought to avoid being defined entirely by his race. He most often emphasizes that he is the leader of all Americans. But in recent years, the president has spoken more about the black experience in the United States — most strikingly after the death of Mr. Martin, when Mr. Obama said, “If I had son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
On Thursday, the president combined his personal remarks on race with a broader call to focus on “the larger agenda”: economic insecurity and stalled mobility for Americans of any color.
“The plain fact is there are some Americans who, in the aggregate, are consistently doing worse in our society,” Mr. Obama said, “groups that have had the odds stacked against them in unique ways that require unique solutions, groups who’ve seen fewer opportunities that have spanned generations.”
The president also called for action from business leaders, members of religious groups, actors, athletes and anyone who can intervene in the lives of black men before they veer off course. He said a White House task force would examine ways the federal government can help, too.
“It doesn’t take that much, but it takes more than we are doing now,” Mr. Obama said. “We will beat the odds. We need to give every child — no matter what they look like, no matter where they live — the ability to meet their full potential.”
He also challenged black men to do better themselves, and said they must not make excuses for their failures or blame society for the poor decisions they have already made.
“You will have to reject the cynicism that says the circumstances of your birth or society’s lingering injustices necessarily define you and your future,” Mr. Obama said.
“It will take courage, but you will have to tune out the naysayers who say if the deck is stacked against you, you might as well just give up or settle into the stereotype.”
“Nothing will be given to you,” he said.
Thursday’s announcement is unlikely to satisfy Mr. Obama’s most vocal critics in the black population, who have accused him of forgetting his roots.
Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke, said the president’s initiative did not focus enough on the more systemic forms of racism in America.
“These young men weren’t killed because of structural situations that didn’t give them opportunities,” Mr. Neal said.
“It’s other kinds of racism and violence that those boys were dealing with. The initiative is not addressing those things.”
The initiative is the latest example of Mr. Obama’s efforts to bypass Congress, which has stymied him on many of the economic policies he considers central to the lives of blacks.
In a show of support, leaders from more than a dozen nonprofit foundations and executives from some of the nation’s largest companies joined the president, along with Magic Johnson, the retired basketball superstar, and Gen. Colin L. Powell, the former secretary of state.
White House officials said the foundations had pledged to spend at least $200 million over the next five years in a search for solutions to the problems black men face with early-childhood development, school readiness, educational opportunity, discipline, parenting and the criminal justice system.
“This is not a one-year proposition,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s not a two-year proposition. It’s going to take time. We’re dealing with complicated issues that run deep in our history, run deep in our society and are entrenched in our minds.”
Gail C. Christopher, vice president for program strategy for the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, which has committed $750,000 to My Brother’s Keeper, said the initial money would be used for hiring staff, consultants and firms “to get something established that has legs.”
But more money will be needed for the initiative to have an impact, Ms. Christopher said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a drop in the ocean of money that will be needed to transform the opportunity structures in our society,” she said.
Mr. Obama acknowledged the limits of an approach that relies little on the government. But he offered hope in the power of his office to bring together people as diverse as the Rev. Al Sharpton, the television host and civil rights campaigner, and Bill O’Reilly, the conservative host on Fox News and best-selling novelist. Both attended the event at the White House.
“If I can persuade, you know, Sharpton and O’Reilly to be in the same meeting,” the president said, “then it means that there are people of good faith who want to get some stuff done.”