Race in America

The Flaw in My Brother’s Keeper

It’s a worthwhile effort to reach out to young black men. But fundamental change will only happen if Americans—not just politicians—want it to happen.

Win McNamee/Getty

On Thursday afternoon, President Obama announced his plan to help black boys beat the odds. Like he did. “I made bad choices. I got high, not always thinking about the harm it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short,” he said.

But he had the advantage of good schools, good neighborhoods, and a stable home life. And to extend those resources to other young men and women of color, Obama will work with private organizations to corral resources and provide services to kids at risk. The program is called My Brother’s Keeper:Under Obama’s initiative, businesses, foundations and community groups would coordinate their investments to come up with, or support, programs that keep youths in school and out of the criminal-justice system, while improving their access to higher education. Several foundations pledged at least $200 million over five years to promote that goal.

Meanwhile, Obama signed a presidential memorandum creating a government-wide task force to evaluate the effectiveness of various approaches, so that federal and local governments, community groups and businesses will have best practices to follow in the future.

All of this is good. It is worthwhile. And the same goes for Obama’s words on the importance of parental involvement. There’s nothing wrong with telling the audience—and by extension, America—that fathers who take “active roles” in the lives of their children can help keep them out of trouble.

At the same time, we should understand the limits of this approach. For as much as it “might up the odds of success for young men of color,” it does nothing to change the odds that they’ll fall into a particular set of circumstances. As outlined by President Obama, these kids are more likely to live in economically impoverished neighborhoods with bad schools, violent crime, and few opportunities. Their families are less likely to be intact, and they are less likely to have the skills and habits necessary to succeed outside of their environments.

Yes, you can do a lot to mitigate this by providing mentors, training, college prep, and other services. But there’s no way this approach can help the large majority of the young men and women in these environments who aren’t as lucky or talented as those who “got out.”

To do that—to build a world where you don’t have to leave, where the odds are forever in your favor, or at least, where being black or Latino isn’t a risk factor—you need the full weight of American society.

After all, that’s how we got here. If these young men are coming from neighborhoods that are poor, segregated, and violent, it’s because—for most of the 20th century—it was the policy of the United States to make them that way.

For half a century, we siphoned wealth from black families. We denied them loans, closed them off in housing projects, redlined their neighborhoods, and left them to fester. If they saw any investment, it was in police. Not to help the residents, but to keep them in their place.

This wasn’t a lark, something that could be fixed with a few adjustments. In a real sense, this project—turning blacks into pariahs, isolated from the wealth of the society they helped build—was a national obsession, and it formed the basis for policymaking across the spectrum of American government, from cities and localities to states and the federal government.

You can say that people are fully responsible for their choices, and that’s where we should turn our attention. But choices aren’t made in a vacuum, and if Anacostia is a place where people to choose to sell drugs, buy guns, and kill each other, it’s because we made it that way.

Put simply, history matters. And the only way to truly change the odds for these kids is to take that into account. Indeed, that goes for young men like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, who had active fathers, who lived in decent neighborhoods, who had opportunities. They didn’t die because their parents weren’t involved enough; they died because they lived in a country where their lives were feared and devalued.

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The president is smart enough, and historically aware enough, that he almost knows this. He even alluded to it in his address, asking Americans to put aside our debates about the origins of the status quo, and focus on doing as much as we can to help our young people of color.

Yes, this is tough talk for people like me, who want to step back to 30,000 feet and critique the incrementalism of people like Obama. At the same time, this focus on pragmatism is a tacit acknowledgment from the president. He can talk about racial inequality and racial injustice, but he can’t act as an avatar for racial justice. It’s beyond the limits of his office.

Since, ultimately, fundamental change will only happen if Americans want it to happen. There’s no politician who can make it happen.

I want to be optimistic, but given America’s steadfast refusal to accept the reality of its racist past, I don’t think I’ll wait for that train to come.