President Obama introduced his groundbreaking initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, Thursday targeting young men of color in a speech at the White House. The program, aimed at creating public-private partnerships to help young men and boys sidestep many of the challenges they face, is near and dear to the President’s heart.
During the moving address, the President recalled his visit to the Chicago-based program “Becoming a Man,” and spoke candidly about the challenges he faced growing up without his father.
During my visit, they’re in a circle, and I sat down in the circle, and we went around, led by their counselor, and guys talked about their lives, talked about their stories, talked about what they were struggling with and how they were trying to do the right thing, and they didn’t always do the right thing.
And when it was my turn, I explained to them when I was their age, I was a lot like them. I didn’t have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realized at the time. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short.
And I remember when I was saying this, Christian, you may remember this — after I was finished, the guy sitting next to me said, “Are you talking about you?” I said, “yes.”
Although President Obama can relate to many fatherless young men, he admits he did not have to face the violent neighborhoods, poverty, or other extreme challenges like many Black and Brown young men today.
“The only difference is that I grew up in an environment that was a little bit more forgiving. So when I made a mistake, the consequences were not as severe.
“I had people who encouraged me, not just my mom and grandparents, but wonderful teachers and community leaders. And they pushed me to work hard, and study hard, and make the most of myself. And if I didn’t listen, they said it again. And if I didn’t listen, they said it a third time – and they would give me second chances and third chances.
“They never gave up on me, and so I didn’t give up on myself.”
As in past speeches, President Obama talked both about the systematic challenges people of color face, while stressing personal responsibility. While many have chided the President for pushing “respectability politics” and blaming the victims of racism instead of the system itself, he once again put the onus on young men of color to “take responsibility” for their lives.
Part of my message, part of our message in this initiative is, no excuses. Government and private sector and philanthropy and all the faith communities, we all have a responsibility to help you provide the tools you need. We got to help you knock down some of the barriers that you experience.
That’s what we’re here for. But you have got responsibilities too. And I know you can meet the challenge, and many of you already are, if you make the effort. It may be hard, but you will have to reject the cynicism that says the circumstances of your birth or society’s lingering injustices necessarily define you and your future.
It will take courage, but you will have to tune out the naysayers who say the deck is stacked against you, you might as well just give up or settle into the stereotype. It’s not going to happen overnight, but you’re going to have to set goals, and you’re going to have to work for those goals. Nothing will be given to you.
Young men of color are up against harrowing odds. Black and Brown young men are more likely to end up in the criminal system, less likely to graduate high school, and more likely to live in poverty than their White counterparts. But instead of merely trotting out these shocking statics to solidify stereotypes about men of color, President Obama argues they should inspire us to action.
“The worst part is we’ve become numb to these statistics,” the President said. “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.”
“But these statistics should break our hearts, and they should compel us to act.”