July 20, 2014; New York Times

Domestic issues, even the plight of tens of thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America crossing the border between Mexico and Texas, have virtually disappeared from mainstream press coverage amid the crises in Gaza and Ukraine. Yesterday, President Obama reported on the status of his My Brother’s Keeper initiative and convened a My Brother’s Keeper town hall at the Walker Jones Education Campus, a public school in Washington, D.C. known for its urban farm.

The president spent roughly an hour at the Town Hall and spoke after being introduced by NBA star Chris Paul. The key message of the president’s speech was the list of new pledges by the members of the My Brother’s Keeper “team effort,” which he defined as “a whole bunch of folks—educators, business leaders, faith leaders, foundations, government—all working together to give boys and young men of color the tools that they need to succeed and make sure that every young person can reach their [sic] potential.” Among the new pledges were these:

  • The National Basketball Association and the NBA Players Association pledged to participate in recruiting 25,000 new mentors.
  • The Council of Great City Schools, 60 of the largest school districts in the nation, announced what the president called “new efforts to help boys and young men like you succeed.” According to Motoko Rich in the New York Times, the districts “have committed to expand quality preschool access; track data on black and Hispanic boys so educators can intervene as soon as signs of struggle emerge; increase the number of boys of color who take gifted, honors or Advanced Placement courses and exams; work to reduce the number of minority boys who are suspended or expelled; and increase graduation rates among African-American and Hispanic boys.”
  • The president announced, “We’ve got leaders from Silicon Valley and the Emerson Collective who are today launching a $50 million competition to redesign high schools so that young people can learn in classrooms built for the 21st century.” The Emerson Collective is an entrepreneurship-oriented program founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs.
  • “A bipartisan group of mayors,” the President said, “are going to bring the ideas behind My Brother’s Keeper to their cities,” an effort that will be matched by the National Congress of American Indians who “do the same for young Native American boys and men.”
  • Other commitments came from the College Board, AT&T, UBS, JPMorgan, the Citi Foundation, and Discovery Communications.

The tally of commitments announced by the president comes to about $104 million. That’s critical, because this is a federal initiative with no federal government money in it.

Nonetheless, there is something a little disconcerting about My Brother’s Keeper: its self-help focus on a problem that may not be curable through individual initiative. It might have been exacerbated by the questions of the young people in the room who queued up to ask questions of the Commander in Chief. As he did in February at the unveiling of the initiative, President Obama talked about his childhood and his personal journey from being a somewhat troubled young man to the occupant of the Oval Office.

In response to one question, he described himself as a college student “a little bit too casual about my studies.”

“It wasn’t probably until I was about 20 that something happened inside me where I really said, you know, if I want to be serious, if I want to make a contribution, if I want to be proud of myself looking back on my life, then I’m going to have to change how I do things. […] I’d say to myself, all right, my goal is to read a certain number of books a month, or my goal is to boost my GPA in college this much, or my goal is to interact with my peers a little differently than I had been doing in terms of how often I went out. So it could just be simple goals initially, and over time, those goals became more ambitious.”

In response to another questioner about how he emerged from a childhood in a single parent household, President Obama credited his mother, who gave birth to him when she was only 18. “I had this mom who just loved me a lot, and I had grandparents who loved me a lot,” he said. “Because she was going to school and she was working and having to raise me and my sister, and my grandparents gave us a lot of help, but it was hard. It was hard on her.”

Another young person asked about how the president copes with people’s critical opinions of him. “I do think that one of the things, as you grow up you start trying to figure out, is who gives you constructive criticism because they’re invested in the same things you are but maybe can see some things you can’t,” the president said. “One thing you should learn is if somebody is being constructive in their criticism, usually they’re not criticizing you, they’re criticizing your actions and what you do, and are giving you something specific.”

There is a lot of self-help and pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps to the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, and most elements of the initiative, such as mentorship, are hardly new. Some people think that the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative has to more explicitly address “institutional racism” and “structural racism.” One newspaper editor articulated the challenge:

“Let’s say they do all the right things, let’s say they excel in the classroom, let’s say they are involved in community activities, but then they go out on the street and they are harassed by police, profiled and arrested,” said Walter Fields, executive editor of the NorthStar News, an African American-oriented news website. “Or they go to college and they get a degree, then they go out on the labor market and they are discriminated against. How do we control that, after you have told these young men that they have to rise above it and be better, then they run into a system that is designed to cut them down?”

“What the president is saying, in a very coded way is that, ‘Yeah, we know racism exists, but you have to rise above it. 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 added. “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…But when it comes from the most powerful elected official in the world, we have to hold him to a higher standard.”—Rick Cohen