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Rethinking President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative


During the Race and Public Policy Conference in 2004, Keith Lawrence of Aspen Institute Community College and Terry Keleher of the Applied Research Center at UC Berkeley presented a paper titled “Chronic Disparity: Strong and Pervasive Evidence of Racial Inequalities.” During this session they provided a detailed definition for structural racism. To this extent, they defined structural racism within the United States context as “the normalization and legitimization of an array of dynamics—historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal—that routinely advantages Whites while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color. It is a system of hierarchy and inequality, primarily characterized by White supremacy—the preferential treatment, privilege and power for White people at the expense of Black, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, Arab and other racially oppressed people.”

In February 2014, President Obama announced a five-year, $200 million initiative, known as My Brother’s Keeper to “help” Black and Latino youths. According to the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force May 2014 Report to the President, this initiative aims to address some alarming statistics that are current within the United States, including 23.2% of Hispanics, 25.8% of Blacks, and 27% of American Indians and Alaska Natives live in poverty, and further limits pathways to success; Black, American Indian, and Hispanic children are between six and nine times more likely than White children to live in areas of concentrated poverty; roughly two-thirds of Black and one-third of Hispanic children live with only one parent; high school dropout rates are as high as 50% in some school districts, including among boys and young men from certain Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander populations; during the summer months (June-August) of 2013, just 17% of Black teenage boys (ages 16-19) and 28% of Hispanic teenage boys were employed, compared to 34% of White teenage boys; while only 6% of the overall population, Black males accounted for 43% of murder victims in 2011; In 2012, Black males were six times more likely to be imprisoned than White males.

In the president’s White House press conference speech on February 27, 2014, he said, “If America stands for anything, it stands for the idea of opportunity for everybody. The notion that, no matter who you are or where you came from, or the circumstances into which you are born, if you work hard, if you take responsibility, then you can make it in this country.”

While on the surface, President Obama’s attempt to uplift minority youth is splendid and can be useful to combat the appearance of failure among this population, the initiative lacks components that would aggressively respond to the pervasiveness of institutional and structural racism that yet persists in America.

It is through the lens of the previously cited definition of structural racism that I openly critique President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative. The idea that “if you work hard, if you take responsibility, then you can make it in this country” is an ideology that is not authentic for the majority of minorities, because of the structures of inequality, hierarchy and White supremacy that is prevalent. Meritocracy is often contested by racism.

On July 20, 2014, The New York Times published an article titled “Obama to Report Widening of Initiative for Black and Latino Boys.” This article provided an updated brief overview of the president’s vision and mission for the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative. The president and local school district leaders appear to believe that the downward spiral of minority youths is rooted within what is offered to them in educational institutions.

The article began by mentioning that 60 of the nation’s largest school districts joined the president’s initiative to improve the educational futures of young African-American and Hispanic boys from preschool through high school graduation. It stated that, “The districts, which represent about 40 percent of all African-American and Hispanic boys living below the poverty line, have committed to expand quality preschool access, track data on black and Hispanic boys so educators can intervene as soon as signs of struggle emerge; increase the number of boys of color who take gifted, honor and Advanced Placement courses and exams; work to reduce the number of minority boys who are suspended or expelled; and increase graduation rates among African-American and Hispanic boys.”

While these are not negative goals, they do, however, appear to blame the youth for their predicament and suggest that higher level academic courses and increasing high school graduation rates will somehow create employment and social equality among minority youth and their counterparts. Metaphorically, this is parallel to putting a Band-Aid on a cancer.

Seemingly, as a part of My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, local educational leaders and the president have not addressed issues that impact minority youth the most, such as zero-tolerance disciplinary policies; schools that rely on law enforcement to handle minor offenses; not having adequate educational accommodations and resources within school buildings; disproportionality among minority youths in special education; juvenile justice system and educational policies that fail to meet basic educational and remedial needs of socially disadvantaged children; and problems related to the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately affect minority youths.

The purpose of this article is not to encourage readers to dismiss the president’s agenda in aiding minority youth.

However, first I urge the president and his supporters to invest in combating structural and institutional inequities that continuously serve as a glass ceiling to minorities despite their educational attainment.

Second, create a long-lasting systemic social infrastructure that would remain steadfast beyond Obama’s presidency.

Lastly, I caution school district leaders not to promote academic achievement of minority youth just for the sake of meeting Annual Yearly Progress (AYP), which in turn will cause selected school districts to receive increased federal funding and raise salaries for teachers and administrators.

Former Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell, known as the father of “critical race theory,” advanced what he called “interest convergence theory,” which holds that Whites will support minority rights only when it’s in their interest as well. Hopefully, the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative will develop into a program that will positively impact minority youth.

While I applaud the president for considering minority youth, I do not free him of critique and critical observations.

Dr. Antonio L. Ellis is an adjunct professor at the College of Charleston.

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