Commentary: We Should All Embrace My Brother’s Keeper

Judith Browne Dianis argues that by helping young Black and Latino men, everyone benefits.

Posted: 04/01/2014 02:02 PM EDT

To obtain their slice of the American Dream, young men of color must first navigate the inequality that pervades nearly all aspects of American society.

From pre-school to high school, for example, zero tolerance policies nationwide severely punish Black and Latino youth for minor offenses at a strikingly higher rate than their white counterparts. They are systemically derailed from the academic track and pushed into a criminal justice system that eagerly overcrowds private prisons with Black and brown people. At every turn, young men of color face racial discrimination and structural barriers that inhibit their development. They are more likely to be suspended, expelled, academically challenged, unemployed and/or incarcerated. Despite living in a country that is often hostile to their very existence, many of our young men of color do excel in college and career.

The My Brother’s Keeper initiative comes amid this backdrop. The initiative, which will expand opportunities in education and employment for young men of color, should be greeted with open arms.

Some detractors, however, claim that the initiative upholds patriarchy because it fails to acknowledge young Black women and Latinas who also suffer from glaring racial disparities.  Indeed, Black and brown girls are less likely to graduate high school in four years than their white counterparts. Latinas are 70 percent more likely to be incarcerated compared to white women, and Black women are three times more likely to be incarcerated.

However, framing My Brother’s Keeper as an “either-or” proposition is shortsighted. This assertion presumes that working to benefit boys comes at the expense of young women of color. It does not. Indicting the initiative for focusing on young men only pits people of color in competition with one another. It drives a wedge, swiping at an effort to help young men of color, rather than recognizing the need to focus on both young men of color and young women. Using this wedge is no different (at least superficially) from those who argue that My Brother’s Keeper is racially discriminatory because it does not include white males, many of whom, especially those living in poverty, also struggle on the margins.  

Yet the policies being examined for improvement as part of My Brother’s Keeper, such as racially discriminatory school discipline, will also result in better outcomes for young women of color who are also being criminalized at school. Changing discipline policies, using federal guidance to limit the role of school police and emphasizing innovative programs that focus on changing students’ behaviors rather than in doling out punishment are practices that stand to benefit both young men and women.

While My Brother’s Keeper is not the panacea for all that ails our country’s youth, it is a tangible initiative that does more than play lip service to the racial inequities that plague our nation. Our challenge is not to dismiss the initiative because it doesn’t include every constituency, but to ensure that the program is a successful part of a much larger fight to have America live up to its ideals of inclusivity, equality and justice for all. This is a task we should enthusiastically embrace.

Judith Browne Dianis is an attorney and co-director with the national civil rights organization Advancement Project.

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

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