President Obama’s outreach to young men of color: too little too late?

MSNBC – After five years in office, America’s first black president may finally be getting serious about helping young minority men.

The White House announced earlier this month that President Barack Obama is set to launch a new initiative called “My Brother’s Keeper,” aimed at bolstering the lives of young men of color – a demographic far too often trapped in cycles of poverty, academic failure and incarceration.

“We’re going to pull together private philanthropists, foundations, working with governors and mayors and churches and non-profits and we’re just going to focus on young men of color and find ways in which we can create more pathways to success for them,” Obama said in an interview that aired during the NBA All-Star game on Sunday.

But, the president added, “We’re not going to create some big new government program.”

While news of the initiative was welcomed by advocates, larger questions loom about the efficacy of such a sweeping, yet-to-be fully defined mandate. The administration has so far offered few details on the nuts and bolts of the initiative or how it would be funded or coordinated nationally.

A White House official told msnbc that more details would be announced when the program is officially launched February 27. Resources dedicated to the new initiative are “significant and growing,” the official said, without offering a dollar figure.

Such vagueness concerns many advocates, who say addressing the myriad challenges facing minority men requires a firm commitment and resources to match.

“What worries me is that it will be symbolic and not substantive and anything that does not address the real structural barriers to opportunity for young men of color is going to be meaningless,” said Pedro Noguera, executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University. “We’ve got to look at jobs, job training, education and something different from what they’ve been doing, because what they’ve been doing hasn’t been working.”

My Brother’s Keeper is the latest in a string of recent administration efforts to ease the burdens of America’s most vulnerable, among them young black and Latino men. And it comes at a critical moment in Obama’s presidency, as a second-term offers the rare benefit of hindsight and course correction.

As much as President Obama’s legacy will be defined by his ascendance as a black man to the presidency of the United States, he spent much of his first term in office skirting the very notion of race. But since his historic election, Obama’s presidency has been marred by partisan fights and dreams of change torn apart by political gridlock and obstructionism. In his second term Obama seems to have shifted to secure the very legacy, as America’s first black president, that he largely avoided in his first four years in office.

Will it be enough and is there adequate time for Obama to offer his most ardent block of constituents anything in the way of meaningful policy that will solidify that legacy?

“It’s not too little too late, but it’s been too little,” said Khary Lazarre-White, executive director and founder of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, a youth advocacy group based in Harlem, NY. “I understand the restrictions on the President and the do-nothing Congress that he has been faced with that has been intransient. That being said, I don’t think there has been enough of an effort around policy, the use of the bully pulpit to address these issues.”

A change in tone

When Obama was pressed by the Congressional Black Caucus in his first term to do more to address double-digit black unemployment rates, he would often speak of a broader mission to improve the national economy. “I want all Americans to have opportunity. I’m not the president of black America. I’m the president of the United States of America,” Obama told Black Enterprise magazine in 2012.

Critics complained he’d forgotten his roots as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago, and that in the bubble of mostly white advisers he’d been insulated from the harsh realities facing many African Americans. The president was also skewered for how he sometimes addressed black audiences, rubbing folks the wrong way with his talk of bootstrap responsibility that was viewed more as chastisement than brotherly love.

But last summer, amid national protests and anger following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, Obama stepped before cameras and spoke in a way that signaled a tonal and practical shift in the way he and his administration would handle matters of race in his second term. He spoke eloquently of the travails of being young and black in America, asking if more could be done to give black boys a sense that “their country cares about them and values them.”

It’s a cause that has been both fashionable and fleeting, time and again.

For the better part of two decades non-profit groups, governmental agencies, philanthropists and universities have tried to address the challenges of young black and Latino men with varying results. And there has been no real meaningful, robust policy initiative on the state or national level that has put forth the kind of resources required to attack the vast array of social, educational and economic hurdles that confront this demographic.

Even as the plight of young men of color has cycled in and out of various philanthropic circles as a favored cause, prospects for these young men have remained relatively bleak despite the steep costs shouldered by society when they fall through the cracks.

“Given that there has been so much activity, why has the outcome not changed? Why have the numbers of black men in college, in terms of enrollment and academic performance and graduation rates pretty much remained the same as they were 15 years prior?” said Shaun Harper, a professor in the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania who has researched the effectiveness of educational programs focused on young men of color.

The alarming statistics regarding minority male achievement have sparked a kind of knee-jerk reaction, compelling leaders to “act quickly without serious strategic planning,” Harper said.

Efforts have been narrowly limited and often launched in stand-alone or fragmented ways, Harper said. There has generally been a lack of comprehensive efforts that offered a wrap-around approach that sought to remedy the many very real barriers between these young men and solid, stable lives.

“Educators and policy makers have been attempting to solve the education problem without connecting it appropriately to other aspects of young men’s lives,” Harper said. “A kid can’t do well in school if he’s hungry or if he lives in severe poverty or if he doesn’t have healthcare or his neighborhood is especially violent.  All of those things undermine school achievement and school, college and career readiness.”

‘Make sure people are talking about this’

Even with the lack of detail offered by the administration, the My Brother’s Keeper initiative suggests Obama in his second term is more willing to use policy to address the condition of minority Americans.

“What he’s tried to do consistently is make sure people are talking about this,” said David Johns, executive director of the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for African Americans. Obama launched that initiative in 2012 with an executive order to help accelerate national efforts to support African American students.

“We can’t take for granted that people are talking about the importance of education and the importance of supporting boys and men of color across the board, not just academically but socially and emotionally,” Johns said.

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