In the summer of 2013, President Barack Obama spoke on the difficulty of being a young Black male in America. Much of the Black community was enraged that a 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin, was murdered in cold blood without proper justice being served.
“When Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son,” President Obama said during a press conference at the White House. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away. There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me —at least before I was a senator.”
Two months prior to making the speech on Trayvon, President Obama received backlash for his choice words to the graduating class at Morehouse College.
“We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices,” President Obama told the Morehouse grads. “Growing up, I made a few myself. And I have to confess, sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. But one of the things you’ve learned over the last four years is that there’s no longer any room for excuses. I understand that there’s a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: ‘Excuses are tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.’”
Critics were appalled that President Obama would suggest that successful Morehouse men would lean on excuses as they entered the real word.
Yet the Trayvon speech was a watershed moment for President Obama. It proved to the Black community that he understood the plight faced by young Black men in America and how systemic policies helped to create some of those issues. Along with racial profiling, many young Black men have endured uphill battles when it comes to education, employment and the criminal justice system.
According to findings by the Schott Foundation for Public Education, the national high school graduation rate for Black males was 59 percent compared to 80 percent for White males.
Seven months following the Trayvon Martin speech, President Obama introduced an initiative that would firmly address and attempt to solve the issues faced by young Black males in America.
With several Black teenage boys behind him at the East Room of the White House, President Obama announced the My Brother’s Keeper initiative. The parents of Trayvon Martin, as well as notable African-Americans such as Magic Johnson, Congressman John Lewis and Al Sharpton were all in attendance as the President shared his vision of a brighter future for young Black men in America.
“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,” President Obama said. “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.”
Obama revealed that $200 million in funding would be allocated to start and support mentoring programs in distressed communities. Over the past three years, the My Brother’s Keeper initiative has had a direct impact in helping Black youth across the nation.
Over 250,000 Black males from 6th through 9th grade have been paired with trained mentors; 3,500 youth were given access to 70 national labs in 20 states; 10,000 teens and young adults were hired for jobs in Philadelphia during the 2015 Summer Jobs Challenge and the “Compton Empowered” Gang Violence intervention program played a role in the decrease in homicides by nearly 50 percent from 2014 to 2015.
The My Brother’s Keeper initiative will continue to grow in 2017 and beyond. President Obama has shared that he plans to remain committed to the program once he leaves office.
“So this is going to be a big project,” President Obama said during the December 2016 My Brother’s Keeper National Summit at the White House.
“It is as a consequence of neglect over generations that so many of these challenges exist. We shouldn’t expect that we’re going to solve these problems overnight, but we’ve got proof about what happens when you just give folks a little love and you act on that love. And I’m looking forward to working with you to do that.”
A.R. Shaw is an author, filmmaker and journalist who is documenting a culture one story at a time. Follow him on Twitter @arshaw.