Obama’s Racial Justice Initiative, for Boys Only

On a Saturday morning in mid-July, about seventy-five recent high school graduates and college underclassmen — all young black men — crowded into the Laney College student center in downtown Oakland, California. Some were accompanied by parents, mostly their mothers. Some wore red button-up shirts and black ties that marked them as members of the Striving Black Brothers Coalition, a group that provides mentorship to young African-American men attending a nearby community college. One wore a letterman-style jacket issued by another college-prep program geared toward black youth. Embroidered on the back was a question: What if the prince dared to be king?

The princes in question had been convened by the College Bound Brotherhood, an organization that connects black boys and young men in the Bay Area to scholarships and peer support. They spent the day hearing from a former college-football star as well as admissions officers from the University of California — all men of color. Meanwhile, their parents attended sessions on financial aid and traded tips on dorm move-ins and care packages. The young men learned how much time to spend on homework (two hours for every one spent in class), the best place to sit in a classroom (never farther back than the third row), and how many community-college credits are required before a student is eligible to transfer to the UC system (sixty). Monique Johnson, whose 17-year-old son recently graduated from nearby San Rafael High School and will be attending the California Maritime Academy, considered all of this a godsend.

"Where else are you going to have a room full of African-American men of this age who are not in trouble, who are doing the right thing?" she asked me. "And their parents are here," she added, "so this debunks every myth that you've heard."

Debunking "every myth that you've heard" about black and Latino boys and young men is a goal of the Obama administration's My Brother's Keeper (MBK) initiative, which seeks to close the "opportunity gaps" faced by boys and young men of color. Not since Bill Clintontried — and failed — to launch an initiative on race during his second term has a president called attention to the persistent racial disparities in health, wealth, education, incarceration and more. This time around, the effort involves more than holding town halls and issuing reports: My Brother's Keeper has partnered with foundations, which will allocate $200 million for the initiative, as well as corporations like AT&T, UBS and JPMorgan Chase, which have pledged $100 million in additional financial support.

Many racial-justice advocates have welcomed President Obama's attention, and the funding that comes with it. But since it was launched in February, My Brother's Keeper has met with a firestorm of criticism in opinion pieces, on cable news shows and in two highly publicized open letters. On Twitter, opponents have adopted the hashtag #WhyWeCantWait — referring to the 1964 book by Martin Luther King Jr. that grew out of his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" — as their rallying cry. The crux of these critics' argument: if the Obama administration's sole racial-justice initiative focuses exclusively on boys and men, then girls and women of color — who are part of the same disadvantaged families, classrooms and communities — find themselves ignored.

The African American Policy Forum (AAPF), a think tank led by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, has taken the lead in harnessing a response. It organized the two open letters — one signed by more than 200 black men, and the other by more than 1,000 women of color — and hosted public conference calls. On one such call in early July, Kristie Dotson, a signer and philosophy professor at Michigan State University, put the question succinctly: "Are black girls genuinely part of the black community?"

At the heart of My Brother's Keeper is a questionable assumption: that the key to developing stronger families and communities is to create more successful (and thus more marriageable) young men. MBK's proponents argue that boys and young men of color lag uniquely far behind their white and female counterparts, but they fail to explain how improving the boys' success will address the myriad challenges faced by black and Latina girls and young women. For example, black girls and women age 10 to 24 are murdered at rates higher than any other group of girls or women. Black girls are three times more likely than white girls to be suspended from school. The median wealth of single black mothers is $100 and $120 for Latina single mothers; it's $45,400 for white single moms. Also, black and Latino students — girls and boys alike — have made almost no progress in twelfth-grade reading scores in the past two decades and still trail behind white students.

Supporters of My Brother's Keeper counter that this administration does have an initiative aimed at females: the White House Council on Women and Girls. But the council's chief purpose is to act as a clearinghouse for research on this demographic. It lacks the private funding that gives MBK the potential to make an impact. It also lacks a focus on communities of color.

Indeed, very little foundation funding is directed to communities of color in the first place. According to a 2013 Foundation Center report, organizations serving people of color receive only 9 percent of grant allocations. Nor is My Brother's Keeper the only instance in which boys and men have been made the focus of funding efforts to the exclusion of girls. It builds on a coordinated philanthropic focus that began in the 1990s and was ramped up in 2006, after The New York Times published a front-page article highlighting research on the unique challenges facing black men.

Organizations and individuals receiving grants from the foundations now central to My Brother's Keeper argue that while the social and economic indicators for girls and young women of color may be bleak, boys and men in these communities can't afford to wait either. In the pro-MBK camp's opinion, attempting to hold up an initiative that's already under way is a risky proposition — especially when the nation's first black president is championing it. Marc Philpart, associate director of PolicyLink and director of PolicyLink's Boys and Men of Color Team, argues that the criticism of MBK could have real consequences. "It might become a political hot potato, and nobody picks it up after the president," says Philpart, who also works with a statewide boys and men of color network convened by the California Endowment, another foundation providing financial backing to MBK. "Critics have been overly harsh and created an air of negativity that helps neither their cause or My Brother's Keeper. It's a nascent movement. In situations like that, the goal should be to bring people into the fold and not push them away."

Alicia Dixon is executive director of the Marcus Foster Education Fund, one of three organizations that run the College Bound Brotherhood. (Another is the Kapor Center for Social Impact, one of the eleven foundations central to MBK.) Dixon is also an African-American single mother of three boys. She says she understands the perspective of those who have signed the AAPF's letters, but she's firm in her belief that the data comparing men and boys to women and girls prove that young black men are at a particular disadvantage when it comes to educational attainment. Young black men complete college at rates lower than any other racial or ethnic group, regardless of sex, according to a 2012 study. Whereas 68.5 and 65.9 percent of black women are awarded associate's and bachelor's degrees, respectively, only about a third of black men achieve either. "I get all of that debate," Dixon tells me. "I just think it's important that we not get distracted."

These disparities help explain why foundations made education their top funding priority for black boys and men between 2008 and 2010, according to a 2012 Foundation Center report. In those two years, 40 percent of grant dollars that went to this demographic supported education-related projects.

According to the proponents of such initiatives, programs tailored to meet the specific needs of African-American males will create a ripple effect that reaches other groups. As Dixon puts it: "We think all boats will rise." Proponents of MBK say the success of programs developed now through grants to support boys and young men of color could lead to the development of future programs targeting other groups, like young Latina women or teenage African-American girls. But to do that, Philpart says, MBK needs to develop without a barrage of criticism from people within the black and social justice communities. When I ask him if he can understand why many women aren't content to wait for the ripples to reach them, he responds: "I don't think anybody is asking women to wait. My Brother's Keeper is great. Let it be that, and women should have a separate initiative. By making My Brother's Keeper something else and broadening it, you lose the targeting that you want out of a situation like this."

    • Dani McClain
    • Dani McClain is an Oakland-based journalist covering reproductive rights and sexuality.

      She reported on education while on staff at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and covered breaking news for the Miami Herald's metro desk. Her writing has appeared in outlets including The Root, Loop21, AlterNet, On the Issues, and ...

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