A Father's Example

Cory Booker Insists That Helping Young Men of Color Helps the Whole Country

The freshman senator talks about race, opportunity, but most especially the need to support boys and men of color.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

This past Thursday, President Obama gathered men and boys from around the country into the East Room of the White House to launch the "My Brother's Keeper" initiative. It's a new effort to help young men of color overcome challenges in their lives and thrive, supported by over $200 million in investments from multiple foundations and corporations, and the moral and practical encouragement of a president who declared, "This is an issue of national importance ... as important as any issue that I work on. It's an issue that goes to the very heart of why I ran for president."

Sitting in the back of the East Room on Thursday afternoon was a young U.S. senator who, growing up, never had to look far to learn how to be a man.

"It wasn't what my father ever said that was important; what was most impactful to me was what he did," Senator Cory Booker told me in a recent interview. "My dad set a clear model for me for what manhood was all about. Whether it was loving my mother, or developing a strong work ethic ... I remember when I was a little kid in the winter, the first sound I would hear at 5 o'clock in the morning was my dad shoveling the driveway. He strove for excellence in everything he did."

But it was something Cory Booker's father--Cary Alfred Booker, a self-made man from Hendersonville, North Carolina, who worked his way through college in part by shining shoes--told his son before he died that haunted the new senator, a sentiment that ran through his mind at the White House last week.

"My father passed away a few days before my election. This man, an African American born to a poor single mother in 1936 in the South, would worry in the last years of his life that he had better life chances when he was growing up than a young man born in the same circumstances would have today."

"That struck me," Booker continued, "and it made me feel a sense of determination that this would not happen on our watch."

Observers wondered whether Booker would focus on issues related to low-income communities in the Senate, or tack towards the ideological center in preparation for a potential national race. Booker appears to have found a way to do both, honing in on the progressive causes that he supported for years as mayor of Newark, but doing so in partnership with unlikely Republican allies.

For example, Booker is working with Sen. Tim Scott, the South Carolina Republican, to develop new apprenticeship programs for out-of-work young people, and with Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk on legislation promoting year-round schools in low-income school districts. And he is perhaps most animated about bipartisan efforts to reform the criminal justice system, which disproportionately impacts young black and brown men.

"Blacks and Latinos are more likely to have longer sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, for committing the same crime as others," Booker said. He hopes that legislation introduced by Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin and Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee to reform drug sentencing will have an impact. But he thinks Congress needs to go even further.

"I am so determined to see broad-based criminal justice reform; not only what is being discussed now," Booker said, "but I think we need to move a lot further in ending this mass incarceration problem that we have in our country."

"I'm intending to work on juvenile justice reform, sentencing reform, reentry, drug treatment, access to mental health care," Booker continued. "All of these things will help us begin to undermine what is a grievous problem in our country: that we waste gross amounts of tax dollars, consume human potential, and create cycles of criminality, all because we lock people up with no way to break the cycle."

I wondered if Booker feared that a focus on issues that disproportionately impact minorities would drive away his other supporters--he won his U.S. Senate election in New Jersey backed by a broad coalition, including a majority of whites. But Senator Booker sounded unconcerned, saying that Americans should look to the past to understand how to build diverse alliances of support into the future.

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"It's that 'King ethos' that we need to understand, which he so wonderfully articulated in his 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail'," Booker noted, referring to the Civil Rights giant's missive to white pastors from an Alabama jail cell in 1963.

"King said that we're all 'caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.' What that means is that in this country, what happens with your children is going to impact my children. And when you have large amounts of children, especially of certain ethnicities, whose genius is being wasted, then our whole country will suffer."

"We have had in our nation a well-celebrated Declaration of Independence," Booker concluded, his voice rising a bit, like the African Methodist Episcopal preachers in churches where he grew up. "But our success as a country will depend upon a new 'Declaration of Inter-dependence.' A belief in how much we need each other, how much we share one common destiny."

It's yet to be seen whether this new declaration, and notion of common destiny, will have Booker's intended impact in the rough and tumble world of the United States Senate. But in his first few months in office, Cory Booker appears to be on a mission to find colleagues and causes that advance the belief that we are, ultimately, our brother's keeper.