Obama’s 34 Words That Matter Most

No one paid much attention when he said he would appeal for more help for young men of color, but those could prove the most important words of the State of the Union.


It may have been one of the most important lines in President Obama’s State of the Union address–and also the most overlooked. Between his remarks on education and a section on women’s rights, President Obama declared:“I'm reaching out to some of America's leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing especially tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential.”No one applauded–rare on a night when hands tend to clap after every cough and sneeze. Twitter did not light up with commentary, and the video clip of that portion of the speech did not go viral. And yet, in terms of historical importance and future possibility, these 34 words might ripple far beyond the fourth Tuesday in January 2014. See, low-income black and brown men and boys in America are at a tipping point. As described in last year’s Newsweek cover story, “The Fight for Black Men,” these fellow citizens are often pushed to the margins of economic, social and political life, and have to scrap and strive to find their way back. Some statistics–disproportionate rates of school suspension, incarceration, and absentee dads–are gloomy. Others–like improving high school graduation rates–are hopeful, and new data, like a recent report on black fathers, show that many of our stereotypes of men of color couldn’t be further from the truth.Now something very special is happening. Across the country, increasing numbers of social entrepreneurs, elected officials, artists, foundations, and corporations are realizing the enormous potential embodied by men and boys of color, and they’re joining an ecosystem of opportunity to give these guys a fair shot. There are nonprofits like the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore that are testing new ways to empower men and boys who can’t find work and are disconnected from their families. There are municipal programs like the Young Men’s Initiative in New York that take black and Hispanic youth off a track towards incarceration and help them find employment and opportunity. There’s the Cities United initiative of mayors around the country, led by Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans and Michael Nutter from Philadelphia, that is finally tackling the problem of youth violence in our city streets. There are efforts to reframe the story we tell ourselves about men of color, including the BMe Community, a video project of Black men telling their own story, and Question Bridge, a digital art installation on black male identity that was selected for Sundance this year. And there are coalitions of organizations, including the Open Society-led Institute for Black Male Achievement and the BMAFunders group that work to support the entire field.On Tuesday night, President Obama said it’s time to bring all of this together, and launch it into the stratosphere. Out of a thousand other priorities, he chose to give special emphasis to men and boys of color, and call on foundations and corporations to help him find solutions to the challenges these young men face. The fact that these 34 words made it into the president’s most important speech of the year sends an unmistakable signal: that the future of minority men should matter to all of us, and we all have a role to play in this new national priority.In many ways, this part of the speech was a fulfillment of a promise made months ago. On July 19, 2013, after the George Zimmerman / Trayvon Martin verdict, Obama spontaneously walked down to the White House briefing room and delivered some of the most personal and poignant remarks of his presidency. He talked about the legacy of race in our country. He waded into the delicate balance between personal responsibility and lack of opportunity. And the president then offered these reflections on men and boys: “This is a long-term project: we need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys? And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about. There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?You know, I’m not naive about the prospects of some brand-new federal program.I’m not sure that that’s what we’re talking about here. But I do recognize that as president, I’ve got some convening power.And there are a lot of good programs that are being done across the country on this front. And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African-American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that--and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed--you know, I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation. And we’re going to spend some time working on that and thinking about that.”Months later, after the heat of the Zimmerman verdict subsided, most folks moved on. But in his speech last week President Obama came back to the issue in a big way and committed himself to finding new partners and solutions to these old problems of race, class and opportunity. We often criticize our politicians for the promises they conveniently forget; we should also acknowledge the ones they work to keep.It remains to be seen what shape this collaborative effort of foundations, corporations, government, and citizens that President Obama announced will take, and what impact it will have on men and boys of color. But the president of the United States launching this effort in the State of the Union address is quite a start, and adds a stiff gust of wind to a community of hopeful warriors that already had a breeze at its back. It was only 34 words, but in terms of helping our country live up to its most basic promises for all of its citizens--those few words might just speak volumes.