When President Obama was able to gather both Rev. Al Sharpton, most recently known as an MSNBC talk show host, and Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News talk show king, to show up at the White House together for the announcement of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, it had to have been the most successful bipartisan announcement of the president’s second term of office. The president was practically gleeful as he took note of both TV talking heads at the announcement of the program: “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 stuff done, even if we don’t agree on everything, and that’s our focus.”

Did the president get this odd couple to actually agree about something? For Sharpton, speaking on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, My Brother’s Keeper was “about trying to make opportunities and trying to build self-esteem and challenge these kids.” He added that the underlying theme is, “Despite the fact you come out of a deprived community, you can’t have excuses.” When host and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough joined in to remark on the power of President Obama’s “no excuses” conclusion to the announcement, Sharpton called it truly powerful because of the president’s upbringing, raised in a single-parent home. “You’re looking at a man…[who’s] been through that…[and] it removes any of the defense mechanisms that kick in.”

Bill O’Reilly followed the White House announcement with some recommendations for presidential counselor Valerie Jarrett. The president’s initiative would be well served, O’Reilly advised Jarrett, if the White House were “to get people like Jay-Z, all right, Kanye West, all of these gangsta rappers to knock it off.” After declaring gangsta rappers priority number one, O’Reilly switched his gender targets with his second recommendation, calling on First Lady Michelle Obama to appear on The O’Reilly Factor and say, “You teenage girls. You stop having sex. You stop getting pregnant.”

It might seem that Sharpton and O’Reilly were in fundamental disagreement about the president’s initiative. They certainly would disagree about the hilarious notion of Kanye and Jay-Z as gangsta rappers. But what is it about the My Brother’s Keeper initiative that they might have seen in a similar vein with the president?

Sparse Program Details

The president described the purpose of the February 27th White House gathering as coming together “to do what we can, in this year of action, to give more young Americans the support they need to make good choices, and to be resilient, and to overcome obstacles, and achieve their dreams.” In specific relation to the elements of My Brother’s Keeper, the text of the president’s remarks included the following:

“In my State of the Union address last month, I said I’d pick up the phone and reach out to Americans willing to help more young men of color facing especially tough odds to stay on track and reach their full potential, so America can reach its full potential. And that’s what today is all about.

After months of conversation with a wide range of people, we’ve pulled together private philanthropies and businesses, mayors, state and local leaders, faith leaders, nonprofits, all who are committed to creating more pathways to success. And we’re committed to building on what works. And we call it ‘My Brother’s Keeper.’

Now, just to be clear—‘My Brother’s Keeper’ is not some big, new government program…. But what we’re talking about here today with ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ is a more focused effort on boys and young men of color who are having a particularly tough time. And in this effort, government cannot play the only—or even the primary—role. We can help give every child access to quality preschool and help them start learning from an early age, but we can’t replace the power of a parent who’s reading to that child. We can reform our criminal justice system to ensure that it’s not infected with bias, but nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son’s life.

In other words, broadening the horizons for our young men and giving them the tools they need to succeed will require a sustained effort from all of us. Parents will have to parent—and turn off the television, and help with homework. Teachers will need to do their part to make sure our kids don’t fall behind and that we’re setting high expectations for those children and not giving up on them. Business leaders will need to create more mentorships and apprenticeships to show more young people what careers are out there. Tech leaders will need to open young eyes to fields like computer science and engineering. Faith leaders will need to help our young men develop the values and ethical framework that is the foundation for a good and productive life…

While there may not be much of an appetite in Congress for sweeping new programs or major new initiatives right now, we all know we can’t wait. And so the good news is folks in the private sector who know how important boosting the achievement of young men of color is to this country—they are ready to step up.

Today, I’m pleased to announce that some of the most forward-looking foundations in America are looking to invest at least $200 million over the next five years—on top of the $150 million that they’ve already invested—to test which strategies are working for our kids and expand them in cities across the country.”

The president was straightforward about My Brother’s Keeper: It isn’t a government program. In fact, as Rev. Sharpton said on Morning Joe, none of the program’s financial resources “will be government money.” The president is capitalizing on the efforts over the past two or three years by several foundations, such as the California Endowment, Open Society, Robert Wood Johnson, the Knight Foundation, and others, to focus the nation’s attention on the variety of indicators that show black men and black boys lagging behind not only whites, but other racial and ethnic groups on a variety of measures of socio-economic and educational progress and achievement.

The president’s announcement was emotional and personal, with references to his own upbringing, and reminded some listeners of his speech last year in which he said, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” In that speech, one of Obama’s most powerful, he presaged the My Brother’s Keeper initiative announcement:

“This is a long-term project—we need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys…. There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them? I’m not naïve about the prospects of some grand, new federal program…. But I do recognize that as President, I’ve got some convening power, and there are a lot of good programs that are being done across the country on this front. And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes, and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed—I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation. And we’re going to spend some time working on that and thinking about that.”

With no specific government funding program to roll out, the president’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative is more a call to action, looking to private and public sector entities, foundations and businesses, and even Sharpton and O’Reilly, to do whatever they might to create on-ramps, so to speak, for black men and black boys to connect with the American economy.

A week after the event, specific statements from federal agencies about what they would do were sparse. Citing examples of existing programs, such as the Job Corps, Youthbuild, and grants for reintegration of ex-prisoners, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez wrote, “At the Labor Department, we look forward to an active role in this initiative. We are already making strong investments in programs that can help young men of color acquire the skills they need to find work and unlock their potential.” Perez’s statement is in keeping with the one specific action that came from the president’s announcement, the issuance of a presidential memorandum establishing the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force to be co-directed by Jarrett and by Cabinet Secretary Broderick Johnson that would help the White House “determine what public and private efforts are working and how to expand on them.”

The Foundations’ Program

The president was clearly moved by the Trayvon Martin killing and had to have been as stunned as much of the country was with the partial verdict concerning the killing of teenager Jordan Davis, but it isn’t as though the challenges facing African American men and boys were unknown during the first six years of the Obama presidency. Part of the foundation community has been leaning on this issue for some time, including, with a very strong personal commitment, Robert Ross, the president and CEO of the California Endowment.

It’s not that Ross and the Endowment were the first and only foundations on top of this topic, but there’s no question that at the Council on Foundations meeting in 2013, Ross took a very high profile leadership position in pulling together grantmakers to discuss what they could do to elevate and coordinate resources targeting this demographic. Coming out of the Council’s meeting, 26 foundations signed on “to forming a national philanthropic alliance or federation that will evaluate promising approaches, advocate for effective public policy and systems change, and invest in these young men as assets for America’s future.” As of this time, there are 28 foundation leaders who are members of the Executives’ Alliance to Expand Opportunities for Boys and Men of Color.

In a way, the foundations’ efforts of the past few years in this arena demonstrate the promotion of government action by example. Their spending and their achievements, combined with the significance of the Martin and Davis killings, seem to have spurred the White House to action, as opposed to the White House’s initiative stimulating foundation commitments. It resembles in some ways the experiments of the Ford Foundation’s with the Gray Areas Program, which helped lead the Johnson administration to undertake programs in the War on Poverty—though unlike Johnson’s War on Poverty, Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper commits no government spending.

Jarrett’s description of My Brother’s Keeper says that foundations already have $150 million in current spending targeted to black men and boys programming and are pledging another $200 million going forward with the White House program. Ten foundations were part of the commitment to the $200 million in new funding. Among the better-known foundation initiatives already underway are these:

  • The Knight Foundation’s Black Male Engagement strategy, which has made six-figure grants to the Student African American Brotherhood, the University of Akron Foundation, and the Detroit Pre-College Engineering Program geared toward increasing black male graduation rates, supporting the “What It Takes” e-mentoring program connecting professional black men to aspiring students, and piloting the “BMe” program to challenge negative stereotypes of black men by celebrating their real life stories and recognizing their accomplishments.
  • The Campaign for Black Male Achievement at the Open Society Foundations, supporting programs such as the New York City Young Men’s Initiative and the Institute for Black Male Achievement, the latter created and led by Root Cause and PolicyLink.
  • The California Endowment announced a $50 million commitment for their Sons and Brothers plan, with seven-year goals to develop 1,000 youth leaders in California, improve school attendance in targeted schools by 30 percent, cut the number of students suspended by half, train all California school police officers in youth development and trauma, start 10 prosecutor programs to keep young people accountable and divert them out of the justice system, and enroll all eligible children in health coverage.

At BMAfunders, the Foundation Center is collaborating with the Open Society Foundations to track all foundation investments supporting black men and boys. The national BMAfunders database and map shows some 2,720 grants since 2008. Among the largest grant recipients, there are 97 foundation grants for the Washington, D.C.-based Advocates for Youth, 90 grants for Morehouse College in Atlanta, many grants to affiliates of the Boys and Girls Clubs and the Boy Scouts, and a surprising number of grants to parochial schools around the nation. Like the presence of O’Reilly rubbing shoulders with Sharpton, the database shows grants from foundations that are quite conservative, including the El Pomar Foundation in Colorado, the F.M. Kirby Foundation in New Jersey (with grants to the Newark Boys Chorus School), the Lilly Endowment (including four grants to the Great Commission Church of God), and the Achelis Foundation. Like the crowd at the White House announcement, the database of grants supporting black male achievement is politically and religiously ecumenical.

Presidential and Foundation Directions

In the press release announcing the 10 foundations committing to support President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, the new president of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, La June Montgomery Tabron, was quoted as having said, “Now is the opportunity for expanding the field and addressing the policies to help remove the barriers to success for young men of color.” Removing barriers is a different message than the “no excuses” self-improvement message one might have gleaned from the comments of the president, Rev. Sharpton, and even O’Reilly. For some, the self-help or self-improvement message of the initiative might be quite attractive, but others might see shortcomings in the “structural” dimensions of the president’s program as a cause for concern. 

Among the many powerful and laudatory statements that emerged in support of My Brother’s Keeper following the president’s announcement were those of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, David Williams of Deloitte (calling on business to support the initiative), and the press coverage from Jonathan Capehart in the Washington Post and Liz Goodwin and Garance Franke-Ruta for Yahoo News. Franke-Ruta herself tweeted, “This My Brother’s Keeper event is 100% hope+change Obama. 2014’s big pivot: fr fighting w Congress to rallying public goodwill outside it.”

As one might expect, however, the announcement garnered its share of criticism. Some questioned the initiative’s focus on black men and black boys—though the explanation there could be that the indicators for black men and black boys are even worse than those for other men of color. Nonetheless, the president’s press conference actually recognized the needs of Latino men in addition to black men and his executive order included Native Americans. The California Endowment’s Sons and Brothers program does the same.

Another critique was that the initiative excluded women and girls. One writer for the Center for American Progress interpreted this criticism as something crudely and artificially generated by the president’s conservative opponents, but the questions about excluding women and girls of color came from The Nation and others hardly on the right wing. “Girls’ and women’s ongoing uphill battles against poverty and criminalization should also make us question why, as the African American Policy Forum reports, the philanthropic world has invested $100 million in initiatives targeting black and Latino boys over the last decade but less than $1 million targeting girls and women in those same racial and ethnic groups,” Dani McClain wrote in The Nation. “Reinvigorating the conversation offers a new opportunity to be explicit about where girls and women fit. And if the answer is—as it seems to be—that we don’t, it’s time to start talking about why.” Brittney Cooper wrote something similar for Slate.

Still others questioned, “What took the president so long?” Why announce a policy like this at the tail end of the administration? Slate columnist Matt Yglesias tweeted, after the East Room announcement, “‘My Brother’s Keeper’ seems very much like the kind of initiative you launch when you’ve given up on getting real stuff done.” Certainly, a presidential announcement with no federal money attached to it might lead one to think that there’s less to My Brother’s Keeper than meets the eye.

Writing for The Nation, Mychal Denzel Smith called the logic of President Obama’s initiative “flawed.” While mentioning the underemphasis on Latino males and the exclusion of women and girls of color, Smith’s fundamental criticism of the Obama logic was its lack of an analysis and approach to race or racism—structural or otherwise. “President Obama has made it clear that he’s of a class of thinkers who recognizes America’s longstanding history of racism, but ultimately believes that the way forward for black and brown youth is to not let their race or gender be an ‘excuse.’ In his view, no matter your circumstances, you can achieve if you’re willing to work hard.”

A similar but not widely seen critique was issued by the Philadelphia Student Union, which wrote, “This plan puts the onus of success on the backs of young people, rather than transforming the systems that oppress young men of color in the first place. When it comes to dismantling systems like the school-to-prison pipeline or the prison industrial complex, we know that it is not about individual effort…. By making the problem seem like young men of color just need to ‘work hard’ [in the words of one White House official], they cover up the real barriers to equal opportunity, such as the racial violence of police brutality that is directed at young black men.” In light of President Obama’s references to Trayvon Martin, the Student Union’s contentions are understandable.

The president made a lot out of the role of fathers missing in the lives of black boys. Like other critics, Smith highlighted the president’s statement that “we can reform our criminal justice system to ensure that it’s not infected with bias. But nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son’s life.” Sharpton’s comments, too, touched on Obama’s reference to his own single-parent upbringing. But Jamelle Bouie in the Daily Beastnoted, “Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis…had active fathers…lived in decent neighborhoods…[and] had opportunities. They didn’t die because their parents weren’t involved enough; they died because they lived in a country where their lives were feared and devalued.”

Walter Fields, a writer and publisher who previously worked at the Community Services Society, where much of the groundbreaking research on the needs of black men and black boys was conducted in the 1980s and 1990s, also has his concerns about the shortcomings of the initiative. “What the president is saying, in a very coded way is that, ‘Yeah, we know racism exists, but you have to rise above it,’” said Fields. “I don’t know how you rise above it. We’ve never risen above it. We’ve managed it, but we’ve never truly risen above it.”

Fields continued: “The difficulty in offering this critique is that there is so little done for this population that you hate to criticize anything that is done [for them]. But when it comes from the most powerful elected official in the world, we have to hold him to a higher standard.”

The most powerful critique, with philanthropy as part of it, came from Imani Perry, a professor at the Center for African American Studies at Princeton. She agreed with Fields and Smith about the president’s emphasis on black men and black boys avoiding “bad choices” rather than addressing the barriers of racism or racial bias in policing and incarceration, education and school discipline, employment, housing, and healthcare. But she adds something about the absence of federal dollars and “the emphasis on public-private partnerships and philanthropy.”

“Philanthropy is not policy. And private institutions do not have the well-being of citizens or residents as their primary concern,” she wrote in the New York Times. “Knowing the history of public-private partnerships in arenas like imprisonment, education, redlining and subprime mortgage lending, we should tread carefully here.”

The president assuredly gets most of this critique, and perhaps even shares some of it. When Imara Jones wrote for Color Lines that the My Brother’s Keeper initiative could and should make conditions for black men and block boys better by “making work pay” for single men (raising the minimum wage and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit), changing school discipline policies that sustain the “school-to-prison” pipeline (as Attorney General Eric Holder has called for), turning prisons into places that provide educational opportunities (along the lines of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposals), and focusing job training on men of color, there’s nothing there that would be a surprise to the president or even all that uncomfortable for him. But many of the middle-of-the-road and conservative supporters of the president’s initiative and many of the foundations providing grants listed in the BMAfunders database—forget right-wingers like O’Reilly—might be uncomfortable with these more structural approaches to the problem.

Smith’s critique concluded, “My Brother’s Keeper is in essence an initiative aimed at helping black and Latino boys find success within a racist system. In some ways, it’s admirable. But finding ‘success,’ however narrowly defined, in the face of racism is not the same as defeating racism. In order to cure what truly ails us as a country, it will take a more concerted effort to reckon with our actual historical record and undo the system of racism that has produced the conditions people of color face today. That’s beyond the power of one American president. But he could put it on the agenda.”

That may be the fundamental role of the foundations involved in this initiative, not just to help fund “no excuses” programs that present good options for black men and boys, but to help the nation understand and confront the racial barriers and obstacles built into the system that have to be overcome if real change is going to happen.