For most of his first term in office, President Barack Obama tended to play down race as a factor in his policy decisions. "I'm not the president of black America," he once said, "I'm the president of the United States of America." That unifying message was one he continually returned to in his efforts to heal the country's wounded economy during his first years in office, and as the nation's first black president he sometimes even seemed to go out of his way to avoid charges of racial favoritism.
But last week Mr. Obama broke with that pattern when he announced the launch of a new federal initiative aimed at improving the economic and educational status of young black and Hispanic men, which he called "a moral issue for our country" that we can no longer afford to ignore. That message should resonate particularly loudly in Baltimore, where fewer than one in five African-American boys in fourth-grade are proficient in reading and nearly half drop out before graduating from high school. With limited education and a lack of other opportunities for self-development, they find their ability to hold a job, raise a family and become productive members of society severely circumscribed.
The program the president outlined would funnel some $200 million in foundation grants toward programs aimed at closing the racial achievement gap in school and reducing the disproportionately high unemployment rate among young African-American and Hispanic males. Since the initiative would be largely supported by private funds, its implementation doesn't depend on congressional approval. That's in keeping with the president's pledge earlier this year to bypass the political gridlock in Washington whenever possible by using executive orders to advance the projects he believes are needed.
In naming the initiative "My Brother's Keeper," the president left no doubt about the personal connection he felt to the young men it aimed to help. In years past some critics have complained that the president hasn't done nearly enough to help African-Americans, who voted overwhelmingly to elect him in 2008 and re-elect him in 2012. But in explicitly linking the new initiative to his own experience as a young black male raised in a single-parent household without a father to guide him, the president has clearly acknowledged the deep kinship he feels with those in whose place he might easily have found himself had circumstances been slightly different.
A key component of the program will be bolstering mentoring programs that help boys establish goals at school and in the community that guide them into adulthood. In Baltimore, programs like the Open Society Foundation's Campaign for Black Male Achievement work with a number of organizations, including Big Brothers Big Sisters, Higher Achievement and the Y, to recruit hundreds of mentors every year to help at-risk middle school students with their homework, offer advice on dealing with problems and build relationships based on trust. The results translate directly into higher student attendance, achievement levels and high school and college graduation rates.
Mr. Obama's initiative will establish a presidential task force to study the effectiveness of public and private programs across a spectrum of issues that affect the life chances for success among young black and Hispanic men. They include early childhood education, literacy and workforce development programs and criminal justice reform. The $200 million the president is proposing is only a fraction of what will be needed to address the systemic inequalities that have left so many black and Hispanic young men unable to fulfill their potential. But the very fact that he has chosen to address the issue so forcefully at this point in his presidency may become one of the most enduring legacies of the Obama White House.
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