WASHINGTON — — Breaking with his past reluctance to tailor policies to specific racial groups, President Barack Obama on Thursday launched a federal program aimed at improving the economic and educational status of young black and Hispanic men.
The initiative, which does not require congressional approval, would direct $200 million in foundation money toward programs intended to close the racial achievement gap in schools and reduce the disproportionate unemployment rate that has beset black communities since the civil rights era.
Obama, the nation's first black president, described the effort as a moral issue of national importance.
"We've become numb to these statistics. … We just assume that this is an inevitable part of American life instead of the outrage that it is," the president said at a White House event.
"But these statistics should break our hearts, and they should compel us to act," he said.
The "My Brother's Keeper" program marks at least a symbolic departure for a president who has often resisted focusing policies on individual racial groups — "I'm not the president of black America," he once said. "I'm the president of the United States of America."
Obama rarely spoke about race during his first term — an approach that has engendered criticism from some African-American leaders.
The president first mentioned the idea of helping young men and boys of color during his State of the Union address last month. He focused that speech in part on actions the White House planned to take without help from the divided Congress, which appears increasingly unlikely to advance any major legislation ahead of this fall's midterm elections.
"I hate to say better late than never, but it almost boils down to that," said Raymond Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University. "We've been patient with President Obama."
Winbush, who wrote a book on raising black boys, applauded the president's effort.
"It's good finally to hear the president of the United States using the bully pulpit to draw attention to the plight of young black men and Latino men," he said. "We love to watch these young people play ball and entertain, but we don't want to deal with some of the issues they're facing in the inner city."
Obama's announcement comes almost exactly two years after the killing of Trayvon Martin, the black Florida teenager whose shooting death by a neighborhood watch volunteer stoked racial tensions and elicited a deeply personal speech about race by the president at the time.
"Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," Obama said.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat and early Obama supporter, said he appreciated the president's remarks Thursday but added that the real test will come in whether the administration sticks to the plan.
"I'm glad he did not shy away from recognizing something that is clearly in our face, and that is the plight of young African-American men and boys," said Cummings, who was involved with the issue 20 years ago as a member of the Maryland General Assembly.
"We will figure out what needs to be done," Cummings said. "The question is whether we have the will to do it."
Obama's initiative has two key components: A presidential task force to be charged with studying the types of public and private programs that are most effective, and a commitment from foundations, including the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, to spend $200 million over five years to build on those efforts.
Officials said the initiative will target areas such as early-childhood development, literacy and criminal justice.
Eighty-six percent of black boys and 82 percent of Hispanic boys in fourth grade read below a proficient level, compared with 58 percent of white boys, according to the White House. Students who fail to read proficiently are, in turn, far more likely to drop out of school.
And despite economic progress, unemployment among blacks remains nearly double that of whites — a gap that has not changed significantly since the 1960s, despite billions of dollars spent annually on education, criminal justice and workforce development programs.
"It's not just about throwing dollars at a problem," said Joe Jones, the founder and CEO of the Center for Urban Families in Greater Mondawmin. "We've got to start to build an infrastructure that's sustainable."
Jones' organization provides workforce development and other programs geared toward fathers. Obama visited the center when he was in Baltimore last May.
The group is one of several that could benefit from the initiative, though it's not yet clear exactly how the foundation money will be spent. In addition to the Casey Foundation, other philanthropic groups set to take part include the John and James L. Knight Foundation, the Open Society Foundations and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Together the foundations will spend at least $200 million on top of $150 million they already had committed to similar programs. But the money — small compared to the problems the groups hope to address — is only part of the significance of the announcement, supporters said.
"What the White House initiative does is it creates something for people to focus on," said Trabian Shorters, who founded a group called BMe Community that provides small grants to black men in Baltimore, Philadelphia and other cities.
"In philanthropy, this has been building for a while, but having the White House say that it's important just adds a sense of momentum."