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Lee: The promise of My Brother's Keeper

BY ASHLEY LEE | MARCH 07, 2014 5:00 AM

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Last week, President Obama delivered a speech introducing My Brother’s Keeper, a national program committed to supporting and improving the opportunities for young men of color. More specifically, the initiative targets young black and Latino men. Around $200 million, not including the $150 million already invested in the program, is expected to circulate through the program over the next five years.

While this isn’t the first program devoted to bettering the societal outcomes for black and Latino boys — there are plenty of local programs in communities across the country — such a program launched by the president further legitimizes the effort. Through his new effort, racial disparities, rooted in the legacy of discrimination, are brought to the forefront of public discourse.

While some abide by the idea that racial inequality is strictly a concern for minorities to ponder, in truth, the disadvantages young black and Latino boys face today are a nationwide problem.

For instance, according to the Schott Foundation for Public Education, 42 percent of black male students and 35 percent of Latino male students are more likely to be educated in under-performing schools, compared with 15 percent of white male students. This is pretty significant, because schools serve as one of many agents of socialization for us to become productive members of society.

So while I stand firmly behind Obama’s initiative to improve these problems, I find his efforts somewhat problematic as well.

Although I understand and appreciate the federal push to assist young black and Latino men, it was the terminology Obama used when delivering his message that was misleading. He repeatedly said the program was meant to increase the outcomes for “young men of color.” However, “young men of color” (along with other social identities preceding “of color”) is a collective, umbrella term used to refer to nonwhites. It’s meant to foster inclusion, solidarity, and support amid a country that advances white privilege.

It’s important to recognize that there are numerous racial and ethnic groups that fall under “young men of color.” Obama failed to address Native American, Pacific Island, Asian, and Arab/Middle Eastern American males. Racism and white supremacy has worked hand-in-hand to oppress each underrepresented group differently. These men of color should also be considered in this initiative.

Nevertheless, Obama was right when he said to the young men behind him at the program’s introduction, “Government, and private sector, and philanthropy, and all the faith communities, we all have a responsibility to help provide you with the tools you need.”

His words indicate that the meritocracy is broken and that My Brother’s Keeper is intended to help.
By working hard and doing the best one can, he or she can succeed; at least, that’s what I’m told. The American meritocracy is a fascinating phenomenon — it’s inspiring and an important pillar in this country’s values, but it’s also extremely flawed. Meritocracy could only truly work if we were to discount or eliminate the structural advantages and unearned privileges groups in power receive.

Despite individual perseverance, societal institutions still play a role in shaping the outcomes of America’s youth, particularly those who are consistently marginalized.

My Brother’s Keeper seeks, in some ways, to correct those imbalances. We must continue to stress individual responsibility, but we must also demand more from our institutions.


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