Commentary: Can President Obama Really Save Our Black Boys?

The My Brother's Keeper initiative is encouraging and hopefully a sign of bigger things to come.

Posted: 05/30/2014 11:08 AM EDT

Back in February, at the end of Black History Month, President Obama announced a new White House initiative called My Brother's Keeper designed to empower boys and young men of color.

Today, the White House released its first progress report on the initiative, a 60-page document that outlines the staggering challenges facing boys of color and proposes preliminary recommendations in six key areas.

The goals of the initiative are admirable. The administration wants kids entering school ready to learn, reading at grade level by third grade, graduating from high school ready for college and career, completing postsecondary education or training, successfully entering the workforce and growing up in an environment with less violence and more second chances.

Those goals ring familiar to my ears. Back in the 1990s, the Children's Defense Fund launched its Black Community Crusade for Children as the organization adopted a mission statement to ensure that every child get a "Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start" in life. That sounds a lot like what the White House is proposing too.

African-American civil rights leaders, educators and community organizations have been addressing the challenges facing our youth for decades, but it's refreshing to see the federal government getting involved and finally beginning to take a comprehensive approach to create solutions. And while most of us in the Black community are all too familiar with the problems, we're not completely sure about the answers.

Whatever action we take, the White House understands these efforts must start early in a child's life. By the time they hit fourth grade, 86 percent of African-American boys and 82 percent of Latino and Native American boys are reading below proficiency levels. By ninth grade, 42 percent of Black male students have been suspended or expelled compared to 14 percent of white male students.

But will a White House initiative help to change any of those statistics? Some of the recommendations sound encouraging. One proposal, for example, is to eliminate suspensions and expulsions in preschool and early learning settings. Another is to reform the juvenile and criminal justice systems to reduce unnecessary interactions for youth.

The problem with these two recommendations is that most schools and jails are run at the local level. How can the White House reform the educational system and the criminal justice system without the cooperation and participation of 50 state governments and hundreds of local governments who run these institutions? And how would they accomplish such reform when the White House itself argues in the report that the new initiative "is not some big, new government program."

Other proposals in the report sound more nebulous. One recommendation is to "strengthen [the] case for summer youth employment opportunities." Oddly, the recommendation is not to increase such employment opportunities but merely to strengthen the case for them. And why just summer employment? African-American teens often live in households where they need year-round employment opportunities to help support themselves and their families.

The new report is only preliminary and it's not perfect, but I give the White House enormous credit for keeping this issue in the public conversation. Creating new and real opportunities for boys and young men of color will not be accomplished in President Obama's remaining two and a half years in office. That's part of the reason we must develop sustainable solutions that endure beyond a presidential term or two in office.

As I wrote in February, a five-year $200 million initiative is not nearly enough time or money to tackle the challenges of poverty, family, education or criminal justice bias that face boys and young men of color. I still believe it's going to take a Marshall Plan or something much bigger than this initiative to make a sustainable difference. But hopefully this is just the beginning of bigger things to come. And at least we have a president who is addressing these issues head on.

The White House will find no single solution to solve all these problems, and it's not just the president's responsibility to do so. Today, the president will discuss this report with members of his cabinet and call on everyone in his administration and adults all over the country to commit to mentoring a young person in their community, according to Broderick Johnson, a White House official and father of two, who chairs the task force. The president's call to action sends a message that everyone has a role to play, and I hope President Obama becomes a mentor as well, if he hasn't already.

One of the most encouraging parts of today's report was the story of a young boy named Damon, a third grader in Nevada. He had been skipping school and not doing well in his classes until something dramatic happened in March to change his behavior. And what was the dramatic event that changed him? It was simple. He got a chance to see his father for the first time in a long time and his dad told him to do well in school.

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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