Commentary: Obama's Initiative for Young Black Men Is a Necessary but Inadequate Step Forward

An outrageous problem deserves an outrageous response.

Posted: 02/28/2014 03:41 PM EST
Keith Boykin

Shortly after President Obama announced his new initiative on Thursday to help young Black men, University of Connecticut Professor Jelani Cobb told MSNBC the White House initiative was "good" but "not sufficient."

Some apparently took Cobb's statement as an attack on President Obama. It's not. It's a statement of fact. The new White House plan, My Brother's Keeper, will not save young African-American men. It's not designed to.

President Obama deserves praise for taking up this issue, and no one should downplay the historic and symbolic significance of the nation's first Black president speaking in the White House to launch an initiative to help young Black men while standing in front of a group of boys and young men of color.

"Having the president of the United States stand up and put this issue on the national agenda...is an important milestone in our efforts to start closing these gaps that have existed for far too long," said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Colorofchange.org.

But almost everyone agrees that raising the issue is not enough to solve the problem. "Until we address the structural impediments to the social and academic success of boys of color in the U.S., initiatives of this type, although desperately needed, will be limited in their impact," said Dr. Joseph Nelson, associate director of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives at the University of Pennsylvania.   

The White House plan takes a narrowly focused approach to the problem. It creates a public-private partnership with foundations to invest at least $200 million over the next five years. Sounds like a lot of money, but it's actually only $40 million a year in a country with 40 million African-Americans. In other words, it's about $1 a year for each Black person in the country. That's an admirable down payment for private philanthropy but a woefully inadequate response for a country with a $3.7 trillion federal budget and a black male unemployment rate more than twice as high as the white male unemployment rate.

Nelson cites access to good education, living wages, gainful employment and the problems of a discriminatory criminal justice system as structural impediments that still need to be addressed. "In the absence of some of those macroeconomic policies that create more good jobs and restore security, it's going to be hard for everyone to make progress." That's not a quote from Nelson, Robinson or Cobb. That's a quote from President Obama himself, as he announced the initiative Thursday afternoon.

In other words, President Obama would likely agree with experts, like Princeton Professor Imani Perry, who argues that philanthropy is not policy. But where he gets in trouble is when it sounds like he's prioritizing personal responsibility over systemic change and government action. "We can reform our criminal justice system to ensure that it's not infected with bias," the president said yesterday. "But nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son's life."

Actually, it's not that simple. Reforming our criminal justice system is the big challenge of our time, as Michelle Alexander argues in The New Jim Crow. It would do just as much, if not more, to keep young Black men out of trouble than the equally important goal of parental involvement.

Parental involvement does nothing to discourage overzealous white men with guns from killing unarmed Black teenagers. It does nothing to curtail police officers from stopping and frisking innocent young black men they view as suspicious. And it does nothing to prevent prosecutors from seeking convictions of young Black men for low-level marijuana and drug-related offenses that rarely raise an eyebrow among young white men. But more to the point, it's the president's job, as the leader of the federal government, to fix our failing criminal justice system, not to fix the American family.

"My Brother's Keeper is not some big new government program," the president said Friday. That's an unusual declaration from a Democratic president. While the statement could be seen as an appeal to conservatives reluctant to engage in any new government spending, it's also problematic because, quite frankly, we do need more government spending, and the president himself knows that.

"Yes, we need to train our workers, invest in our schools, make college more affordable, and government has a role to play," the president said in his speech Thursday. But the White House knows it can't pass any bold new programs through today's Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and the president has acknowledged "there may not be much of an appetite in Congress for sweeping new programs or major new initiatives right now." But he also said "we can't wait."

Unfortunately, our country has become numb to all the horrible statistics about young Black men, as the president said in his speech. "We're not surprised by them. We take them as the norm. We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life, instead of the outrage that it is."

He's right. But an outrageous problem deserves an outrageous response.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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