It's not as messy as the rollout of President Barack Obama's health care plan, but his My Brother's Keeper initiative for black and Latino boys and young men has created a firestorm of debate among people who have largely been supportive of his presidency. But why should we have expected anything less from a bold, if not perfectly targeted, effort to address the fact that, as he noted, "the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century are boys and young men of color"?
The president and his MBK team, in trying to overcome federal prohibitions against discriminating on the basis of race and gender, say on one hand that the efforts they are spearheading will benefit all young people. On the other, they say that boys and men of color are in special need of attention. "The stubborn fact is that the life chances for the average black or brown child in this country lags behind by almost every measure and is worse for boys and young men," the president said in unveiling the initiative in February.
That has so far drawn the most public split in opinion among "people of good faith who want to get some stuff done, even if we don't agree on everything," as the president puts it: Should the effort, with a pledge of some $200 million in startup funding from private philanthropies, be exclusively for males?
Before a single penny has been spent on actual programs, the battle has been drawn in competing open letters, on the airwaves and on the Internet.
On one side you have major foundations, coalitions like the Black Women's Roundtable, activists and celebrities like the actress Vivica A. Fox and Magic Johnson, who has been named co-chair of the president's MBK task force. The open letter led by the Roundtable said: "Our black men and boys are dying out of season on the streets of our nation every day. There is a 'fierce urgency of now' that calls for decisive, targeted action to address this crisis in our community."
Joe Jones, founder and CEO of the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore, is among those who think MBK is properly focused on males, since historically most social welfare policy has ignored them other than as deadbeat dads and criminals. "You can't tell me that the level of investment is anywhere near comparable to what's been available to women and children," he said.
On the other side you have academics, activists and celebrities who include Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Anita Hill and the actors Rosario Dawson and Danny Glover. One letter had 1,000 women signers; another had 200 male signers.
The women wrote: "The need to acknowledge the crisis facing boys should not come at the expense of addressing the stunted opportunities for girls who live in the same households, suffer in the same school, and struggle to overcome a common history of limited opportunities caused by various forms of discrimination."
Precisely because this is such an unprecedented effort — one that some say is long overdue from this particular president — it should be done right. Girls and young women must be included in the studies that will be funded and the mentoring projects that are being promoted. There is still time. The first progress report was just released after weeks of what the task force describes as a period of listening and engaging in meetings around the country, including in Baltimore.
There is still time to for a more concerted focus on what the task force acknowledges but skirts over in favor of pushing mentoring programs. The phrase is "structural barriers." There is a context here. There are reasons that the decks are stacked against black and brown people in this country. And, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in a 16,000-word article in the Atlantic last month, one does not have to go back to slavery to document those reasons. Much more recent government policies and business practices have determined where blacks and Latinos live, how they are educated, how much capital they have access to and how they are treated in the criminal justice system.
"Nobody wants to analyze what's happening to people of color from a comprehensive view," my colleague at Morgan State University, Raymond Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research, says. "There needs to be a systemic analysis of racism in the United States, and I know daggone well they're not going to do that."
I love a good debate, but not for the sake of oneupmanship. If the president and his task force are really listening, they will expand the scope of MBK — ASAP.
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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