Obama Embraces a Lifelong Cause: Helping Minority Boys Succeed

Liz Goodwin and Garance Franke-Ruta, Yahoo! News, February 26, 2014

On Father’s Day last June, President Barack Obama welcomed 14 teenagers sporting black-and-white T-shirts that read “BAM” into the Oval Office.

The letters stood not for the nickname occasionally slapped on the president by big-city tabloids, but for “Becoming a Man,” a program run by a Chicago nonprofit working with at-risk youth in the public schools. The president had met the group of young black men once before, when he dropped by one of BAM’s hourlong group discussion sessions at Hyde Park Academy High School last February. He’d pulled up a chair and sat in the boys’ circle that day, talking with them so long about their lives his aides worried he would blow up his carefully planned schedule during his visit to the city.

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On Thursday afternoon, Obama will be addressing the same set of issues in a far more public way. Three of the BAM teens will return to the White House for Obama’s unveiling of a new initiative partly inspired by the Chicago program. As part of “My Brother’s Keeper,” as the new campaign is known, the White House will bring together nonprofits, foundations and private businesses to endorse and test out programs designed to help young minority men graduate from high school, stay out of juvenile detention centers and prisons, and train for and get good jobs.

The Obama administration’s most ambitious and high profile effort to tackle the systemic problems facing young men of color is rooted in a series of White House conversations led by Obama in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting two years ago. They continued and gathered momentum—including with first lady Michelle Obama—after the random shooting of another teen who lived just a mile from the Obamas’ Chicago home. After his re-election, those discussions began to shape a more serious policy debate as Obama quietly began to bond with the Chicago youngsters.

But what started as a second-term presidential bid to confront a vexing social crisis may be turning into a lifelong cause. Senior White House aides confirm to Yahoo News that a major focus of Obama’s post-presidency will be a broad-based, lifelong effort to lift up a demographic that feels perennially written off and left behind. Obama, who wrote a best-selling memoir probing questions of race, identity and his own fatherlessness, is plotting a return to the issues that have been central to his own life and will continue to shape generations of young black men after he leaves the White House.

“I think it’s something that’s deeply personal to the president and first lady,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president and the Obamas’ closest friend from Chicago. “I’m sure their commitment to this initiative will be a lifelong commitment. This is not something they simply want to do while he’s in office—it will continue.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who once ran the Chicago public schools, echoed Jarrett, telling Yahoo News in an interview that he believes the Obamas will be dedicated to the issue for decades. “This is core to who they are individually and core to who they are together.”

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And yet once in office Obama tiptoed on issues of race, hyperaware of how easily even the slightest misstep could fuel distracting controversies. He was criticized by some civil rights leaders for shying away from race-based initiatives and programs during his first term. So Obama’s high-profile embrace of this cause at this time, in his sixth year in office, raises the question: Why now?

The answer is complicated. For one thing, the president had to deal with an economy in freefall and trying to get health care reform passed in a hugely crowded first term. As the nation’s first African-American president, he also had a fine line to walk: If he avoided confronting racial issues he’d be accused of betraying his roots on behalf of political expediency, but if he confronted them too head-on, he’d be accused of divisiveness.

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There was also the very real risk of lighting politically damaging firestorms that would undermine his broader agenda for a nation in crisis. As it turned out, Obama’s presence in the racial conversation as the first black president sometimes made the issue more combustible rather than less. When Obama spontaneously decided to defend his friend Henry Louis Gates after he was arrested trying to get into his own locked home in 2009, he was forced to call an awkward “beer summit” at the White House for the offended police officer in question. (Obama said the police officer, who was white, had “acted stupidly” in arresting the black Harvard professor.)

The president’s team also had to think about his legacy. A former aide, who asked to remain anonymous to discuss internal decision-making, said White House staff vigorously argued during the first term about whether the president should be focusing more on the African-American community, along with dozens of other competing issues. But the president and advisers felt that his primary duty as the nation’s first black president was to do his job well—which meant focusing on the big picture.

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Obama increasingly relied on the unilateral powers of his office, as well as a more robust use of the presidential bully pulpit. And in what would eventually become a model for His Brother’s Keeper, he turned to Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move anti-obesity program as a template for addressing a complex problem through public persuasion, partnerships and the mobilization of goodwill. The president regularly speaks of his “ convening power” to concentrate attention and bring together foundations, businesses and nonprofits to address complex issues—in this case, the array of forces that make it hard for young black men to succeed.

But how Obama went from treading carefully around the issue of race during his first few years in office to making the fate of young black men a signature issue of his second term is ultimately a more visceral and human story than one of a president reassessing the mechanics of his governing strategy. It began with the shooting of a 17-year-old black teenager named Trayvon in a middle class Orlando suburb—an event that touched off a ritual and emotional debate on race, justice and fairness in America.

Several aides and advisers said that after the shooting, the president began asking what the White House could do to give young men of color a better chance at life. {snip}

“What we see is that opportunity remains elusive for all too many men of color,” said Thomas Perez, secretary of the Labor Department. Perez and Education Secretary Duncan began meeting with Obama beginning last July to help craft a plan. Perez had looked into the Martin case when he headed the Justice Department’s civil rights division before taking the Cabinet job. “The Trayvon Martin issue brought the matter to the fore in a very conspicuous way.”

Obama was deeply affected by Martin’s shooting, though he did not address it publicly until a month after it happened. When he did, Obama openly and powerfully identified with the anguish of Martin’s parents. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama unexpectedly said in the Rose Garden after announcing his pick for the World Bank.

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Last July, Obama casually entered the White House briefing room, unannounced, and spoke for 18 minutes about the Zimmerman not-guilty verdict, declaring that he wanted to “help more young men of color facing tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential.” The remarks were the most extensive he’d made on race since taking office. Four months earlier, he compared Trayvon to his own son, if he’d had one. This time, he compared himself to the young shooting victim. “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” he said, recalling how he would hear car doors locking as he walked down the streets. “We need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys.”

After his comments, the president gathered his senior advisers and told them to really think about how best to accomplish the task. The “My Brother’s Keeper” program came out of the next six months of work.

And Obama began thinking of his initiative to lift up minority men as part and parcel of his overarching goal of narrowing income inequality in America and promoting social mobility. In 2012, less than 50 percent of young black men were employed, compared with 68 percent of young white men. If African-Americans and Hispanics had the same unemployment rate as whites, the U.S. unemployment rate would be even lower than its present 6.6 percent. Unemployment among African-Americans remains stubbornly high, at 12.1 percent, while it has declined to 5.7 for whites.

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