October 29, 2015; The Brookings Institution

In his role as a nonresident senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, Fredrick C. Harris, a professor of political science at Columbia University and Director of Columbia’s Center on African-American Politics and Society, has written a brief but telling critique of President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative. The White House initiative was unveiled at the end of February 2014 with the aim of addressing the societal inequities that were affecting black and Latino young men in America, particularly in educational attainment, employment, and in the criminal justice system.

Harris points out that while My Brother’s Keeper was a presidential initiative, there have been state-level commissions and task forces addressing issues facing young black men in several states, beginning with the first, which was established in Ohio in 1989. While most of these commissions either do little or no longer even exist, some have sponsored initiatives that look like the kinds of activities that My Brother’s Keeper programs typically address in the areas of criminal justice, education, employment, health, and strengthening families. For example, Indiana’s commission has sponsored the Indiana Black Barbershop Health Initiative, involving diabetes and blood testing at 54 black barbershops throughout the state. Connecticut’s commission supported legislation that would establish a process for ex-offenders to earn state-issued “certificates of rehabilitation” that would help them find and keep jobs.

Harris’s critique of President Obama’s initiative relies on a few key themes:

  1. Harris takes issue with President Obama’s “no excuses” speeches at Morehouse College and at the White House announcement of My Brother’s Keeper that suggested that the responsibility for succeeding was up to black men themselves, that young black men had to “step up and seize the opportunity for their own lives,” and that they had to do more create stable families and be better fathers. Harris contends that the “rhetoric about the lack of responsibility does not match reality, and indeed it reinforces existing stereotypes about black men, particularly as fathers.” Citing statistics that show the greater involvement with their children of black men as fathers in both married couple households and unmarried households, Harris suggests that the instability in black family life is due to structural conditions, including the “disappearance” of so many black men from their communities due to incarceration or murders. “Because of the institutional barriers that particularly exist for poor and working-class minority fathers—incarceration and its social consequences, high rates of unemployment and underemployment, state laws that criminalize fathers for non-payment of child support,” Harris writes, “many are likely to experience difficulties in meeting financial obligations for their children despite contributing in various other ways to childrearing.”
  2. Harris also challenges the My Brother’s Keeper emphasis on internship programs, mentoring programs, and apprenticeships that help young black men learn the “soft skills” needed for success in the job market. He argues that while these programs are useful, they “only benefit the few who are fortunate enough to be part of the initiative.” He adds, “the incremental policy changes, program demonstrations, and requests for additional funding for existing government programs [that are part of My Brother’s Keeper] merely tweak around the edges of what has been a long-standing crisis that has only grown over the decades.” Believing that “far more aggressive approaches” are needed to overcome structural barriers that undermine the possibilities of success for young black men, Harris calls for programs that aim to “root…out the hidden laws and practices that perpetuate disadvantages [young black men]…encounter in schools, the criminal justice system, and employment opportunities.” One example would be the Second Chance Pell Pilot program, which would make federal and state prison inmates eligible for Pell Grants.
  3. A third point that Harris raises goes back to the largely dormant state commissions. He argues that many of the structural disincentives that limit the achievements of young black men are in state and local policies and practices, such as various restrictions in states such as Delaware, Illinois, Michigan, Texas, and Georgia that prohibit ex-offenders from obtaining business licenses or professional certifications in fields such as roofing, boxing, interior designing, and even barbering in some places. He suggests that the president’s initiative should aim to “reinvigorate” the state commissions and partner with them in areas where the solutions are likely to be more readily or pragmatically found in state and local practices, particularly in education and criminal justice reform.

Harris concludes, “My Brother’s Keeper’s modest, targeted investments in human capital development and the emphasis of character building and behavior-altering strategies will fall short unless major policy changes that disrupt the barriers placed before poor and working-class minority youth are made.” While that is undoubtedly true, he doesn’t address the structure of My Brother’s Keeper, which makes those recommendations so difficult to implement. It isn’t really a government program, but a compilation of scattered initiatives funded by charity and philanthropy around the country. In the tabulations of programs that fit the My Brother’s Keeper mold, the dominant models are self-improvement and mentoring kinds of initiatives that are little different than what charity and philanthropy has been delivering in black communities for decades with little appreciable change in the structural issues that need to be overcome.

There is an important “structural” agenda to be pursued, but it is almost typically explained by advocates through example or anecdote rather than comprehensively laid out to be addressed by state and federal initiatives. Moreover, despite the structural rhetoric of many who have attached themselves to My Brother’s Keeper, there are many influential players in this inchoate program who are much more strongly attached to the self-reliance, self-improvement, bootstrapping solutions to the challenges faced by young black men than they are to pursuing a political agenda to thoroughly replace structurally inequitable policies with interventions that specifically aim to redress and remedy the imbalances.

NPQ has raised these concerns from the outset of the program, at the release of its initial program priorities, and most recently when the White House announced that My Brother’s Keeper was going independent under the direction of a board led by corporate leaders and sports and entertainment icons. Remember, at the outset of My Brother’s Keeper, both Al Sharpton and Bill O’Reilly enthused about the initiative, finding common ground in the effort’s focus on self-improvement as opposed to the thornier challenge of comprehensively identifying and correcting structural barriers. Now that the initiative is moving out of the White House altogether, it might have the ability to craft some flexible efforts that perhaps were not possible as a program in the White House, but it loses the potential for having inside access to enact the government reforms that Harris hints at as necessary for overcoming structural barriers.—Rick Cohen