At an event that felt like a black church service at times, President Obama on Thursday spoke in deeply personal terms about growing up without a father and urged the entire country to get behind his newly-launched “My Brother’s Keeper” program to help young black and Latino men.
“I didn’t have a dad in the house and I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time,” the president said of his childhood, with 20 black and Latino boys standing behind him in the White House’s East Room.
He added,”I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short.”
But Obama said he was able to be successful because he had a mother, grandparents and teachers who would “push me to work hard and study hard and make the most of myself.”
As the president delivered a speech that alternated between talking about public policy and simply giving advice to both the minority boys behind him and those he hoped would watch the speech on television, a predominantly black audience of several hundred that included luminaries like Magic Johnson and Colin Powell several times shouted “amen” and “yes sir.”
“Yes, we need to train our workers, invest in our schools, make college more affordable — and government has a role to play. And, yes, we need to encourage fathers to stick around, and remove the barriers to marriage, and talk openly about things like responsibility and faith and community. In the words of Dr. King, it is not either-or; it is both-and,” Obama said.
The event was the formal launch of “My Brother’s Keeper,” which aims to pool resources of the federal government and also raise money and create new initiatives through businesses and foundations to target black and Latino males. Studies show men of color are less likely to graduate from high school, attend college or get jobs than white men or their female peers.
After the event, Obama signed a formal order to start an administration-wide search for ideas and programs for minority men. And administration officials say a group of foundations and businesses, including the National Basketball Association, have pledged to raise $200 million for this initiative, which will not involve a large allocation of funds from the federal government.
White House officials are determined to make this initiative bipartisan, so not only are they are avoiding asking for money from Congress, but also are trying to line up conservative voices in support. Obama proudly noted that Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, often a strong critic of the administration, attended Thursday’s event.
“And if I can persuade Sharpton and O’Reilly to be in the same meeting, then it means that there are people of good faith who want to get some stuff done, even if we don’t agree on everything. And that’s our focus,” Obama said, referring to the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was also in attendance.
Administration officials described this initiative, which the White House says Obama will continue even after he is president, as springing from the president’s meetings last year with students involved in a Chicago-based group called “Becoming a Man” that works with men of color. Some of those boys stood behind Obama as he spoke on Thursday. The initiative is also the result of some discussions the president had with other black leaders after George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Trayvon Martin case.
Martin’s parents, as well as those of Jordan Davis, another teen whose controversial slaying generated national attention, were in attendance.
“It may be hard, but you will have to reject the cynicism that says the circumstances of your birth or society’s lingering injustices necessarily define you and your future,” Obama said, turning at times to look directly at the boys and emphasize his words were for them. “It will take courage, but you will have to tune out the naysayers who say the deck is stacked against you, you might as well just give up — or settle into the stereotype. ”
But Obama’s speech suggested “My Brother’s Keeper” is not just about the last year, but in some ways the culmination of the life of a man who has gone from a childhood in which his black father was never around to the twice-elected black president who seems increasingly comfortable taking on difficult racial issues.
“I could see myself in these young men,” Obama said, referring to when he talked to the Chicago group. “And the only difference is I grew up in an environment that was a little more forgiving, so when I made a mistake the consequences were not as severe.”
He added, “I repeat my story now because I firmly believe every child deserves the same chances that I had.”
The president also noted a recent conversation between he and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in which the two spoke about growing up in fatherless homes.
“He and I were talking about how both of us never knew our dads, and shared that sense of both how hard that had been, but also how that had driven us to succeed in many ways,” Obama said.
And for a president often cast as overly cerebral, Obama showed a softer side on Thursday. Christian Champagne, an 18-year-old who Obama met through the Chicago mentoring program, introduced the president at the event, peering down closely at his notes and appearing nervous. After he was done, Obama embraced him and whispered “good job.”
When the president finished his speech, he hugged several of the boys. In a low voice, he told a few of them,“now you really have to work hard,” and added, “I’m counting on you.”