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Brother’s Keeper

"... due to structural barriers – lack of jobs in the inner-city,
persistently failing urban schools, concentrated poverty"

by Pedro Noguera, Ph.D.
New York University, New York

Black males are in the news. They are as usual all over the sports pages and they have recently been the subjects of a new presidential initiative. For a constituency that comprises a mere 6% of the US population, they occupy a position that is unique in both its visibility and vulnerability. It is a precarious position that tells us a great deal about the state of American society today.

On any given Sunday, their presence in intercollegiate and professional sports, particularly football and basketball, is ubiquitous. Like modern gladiators, they display their athletic prowess before audiences comprised largely of wealthy white ticket holders at arenas and stadiums throughout the country. Though they don’t control the purse strings, they comprise a disproportionate percentage of the talent in the multi-billion dollar sports industry. The same is true in the music industry where a steady stream of black male singers, dancers and producers from Quincy Jones and Barry Gordy, to Jay-Z and Pharrell Williams, have occupied positions of prestige and dominance.

Despite the extraordinary success of a small but significant number of black male athletes and entertainers, the quality of life for most black males in America is overwhelmingly negative. In fact, on a broad array of indicators the social and economic patterns are disturbing and consistent: in almost every aspect of life associated with success black males are underrepresented, and in those associated with failure and hardship they are vastly over represented.

In education, the patterns are most disturbing. Black males have the highest dropout rates (50% and higher in many cities), lowest college enrollment and degree attainment, and are more likely to be referred to special education or subject to punitive school discipline (suspension and expulsion) than any other group. In the labor market they are more likely to be unemployed (and for longer periods of time) or trapped in low wage jobs, and underrepresented in professional occupations. Finally, black men comprise more than 50% of America’s prison population. 1 out of 15 are behind bars, and 1 out of 3 can expect to be incarcerated at some point in his life. African American young men are six times as likely to be victims of murder than their white peers -- and account for almost half of the murder victims in the US each year.

These trends are not new. In fact, they have been present for so long that one could argue that the marginal status of black males has been “normalized”; like homelessness and cancer, accepted as unpleasant but unavoidable conditions. It may well be the case that the success of a small number of black males in sports and entertainment has obscured and overshadowed the dire hardships that best the vast majority. The fact that until recently there had been no alarms or urgent calls for action to address these problems suggests that they had been accepted as a permanent feature of life in America.

The lack of official response came to an end in late February when President Obama announced his My Brothers Keeper initiative; an as yet undefined plan focused on addressing the plight of black males that the President said would be designed “to keep them in school and out of the criminal justice system.” The initiative will bring foundations and private companies together to invest in a variety of strategies that will be targeted support to young black and Latino men. It has already garnered considerable attention in part because it represents Obama’s first foray into explicitly racial territory on matters pertaining to public policy. For much of his political career President Obama has steadfastly avoided matters pertaining to race, well aware that his opponents would accuse him of “playing the race card” if there were even a hint that he was showing racial favoritism.

Despite the risks inherent in launching the new initiative, the President made it clear that this is an issue he regards as important and one he cares deeply about. Speaking at a press conference before a large group of young black males that had been assembled, Obama made it clear that he understands the serious nature of the problems that beset black males. He spoke in personal terms about his own challenges growing up: his use of marijuana as a teenager, his lack of consistent effort in school, and the challenges he faced growing up without a father. Already, 200 million has been raised from private foundations (no public funds have been committed) and the President has said he will create a new interagency, the “My Brother’s Keeper Task Force”, that will be headed by Broderick Johnson, the Cabinet secretary and assistant to the president. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Attorney General Eric Holder, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and other senior officials will also play leading roles in “My Brother’s Keeper.”

Though his concern is clearly genuine, the President is faced with a conundrum because the problems confronting black and Latino males have not been ameliorated by existing race-neutral policies. In tailoring the initiative to address the hardships facing this population he runs the risk of either repudiating his other policies or inadvertently reinforcing the notion that something is inherently wrong with “them”, and not the society that has isolated them on the margins.

Many are hoping that he will call for sweeping new policies in education and employment because the evidence suggests that this is where many of the problems lie. However, to call for a new series of education reforms would be an admission that his more recent education initiatives like Race to The Top (RTT) and the common core standards have done little to improve academic outcomes for males of color. Moreover, even his call for raising the minimum wage is unlikely to directly benefit people who are chronically unemployed and locked out of the labor force.

However, to have an impact the President will need to recognize that the obstacles facing black and Latino males are largely due to structural barriers -- lack of jobs in the inner-city, persistently failing urban schools, concentrated poverty, etc. A race-based initiative that attempts to target this vulnerable segment of the population with character building programs is unlikely to do much to change their circumstances. How the President defines the problem he proposes to fix through his initiative will have implications for the solutions that are put forward. If it is defined as an attitude problem that can be fixed by exposing young men to positive role models and admonishing them to pull up their pants and display “grit” we are unlikely to see the kinds of programs that concretely expand educational and employment opportunities.

Perhaps the wisest and most effective thing for the President to do is to invest in the small number of educational and employment initiatives that have proven effective at meeting the needs of black and Latino males. For example, Project Build has been effective in providing job training and channeling young men who have dropped out of school into construction jobs; Home Boy Industries has done excellent work in reducing violence and placing gang members and ex-convicts in Los Angeles, Milwaukee and the other cities where it operates into jobs; and Year-Up, a private job training program has been able to place young people with just a high school diploma into good paying jobs in the finance and high tech sectors.

These programs have been successful because they work at the nexus of education and employment and make it possible for those who have been locked out of the labor market to gain access. However, such programs won’t solve a problem that’s been years in the making nor will it address the source of their marginalization, frustration and despair. Still, by expanding opportunities for hundreds of young men the President could show that his administration is capable of doing more than engaging in empty gestures.

Even his harshest critics must acknowledge that President Obama’s job has never been easy. However, at a time when even his most loyal supporters are losing faith the President must take meaningful action to benefit a constituency that has been counting on him (and which he is at least theoretically a part of) for help.

Published in In Motion Magazine June 17, 2015.

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