For Obama, program to lift up young black men takes center stage

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President Obama has put the My Brother’s Keeper initiative at the center of his response to racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo.

But the president is also signaling that the program meant to provide opportunities to young men of color will be an important part of his post-presidency plans.

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Obama has been “deeply engaged” in the initiative, aides say, helping solicit over $200 million in private donations to be dispersed over the next five years to child development, school readiness, parent engagement, literacy and school discipline reform programs.

He’s asked friends — including NBA stars Chris Paul and Magic Johnson — and administration officials to help create tutoring programs, and held a series of events where he’s spoken candidly about his own childhood struggles with drug use and being abandoned by his father.  

“I know the president's [been] very clear, he intends to see himself continuing to do and lead this kind of work post-presidency,” one White House official said.

On Monday, in another signal of the program’s importance to Obama, he sent Broderick Johnson, his Cabinet Secretary and the head of the program, to Ferguson. Johnson was the administration’s senior representative at the funeral for 18-year-old Michael Brown, whose killing by a white police officer earlier this month set off the nation’s latest debate about race.

“The president's commitment to this couldn't be stronger,” Johnson said in an interview with The Hill. “And it's a real honor to work as I do, on this for him, because I know how much this matters to him.” 

The My Brother’s Keeper initiative was inspired by the death of Trayvon Martin, another black teenager whom civil rights groups argue was killed in part because of racial profiling. The two killings have helped put the long debate about race at the forefront of Obama’s presidency.

Race has been a difficult issue for the nation’s first black president, who throughout his presidency has sought to strike a balance.

Obama was criticized in 2009 when he said police who arrested a black Harvard professor trying to break into his own home had “acted stupidly.” The comments led to a White House “beer summit” attended by the professor and one of the police officers who arrested him.

In discussing Brown’s killing, which is being investigated by the Justice Department, Obama has publicly said that it is important he isn’t seen as taking sides.

But Obama has also talked personally about race. After Martin’s death, he said that Martin “could have been me” as a teenager, and that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

Obama and his administration see the My Brother’s Keeper program as a long-term investment and potential legacy item.

During a town hall earlier this summer at the White House, Obama said he hoped to build on the program even after he leaves the West Wing. 

“Look out on the horizon, and there's a lot of opportunity out there,” Obama said. “And that's what I'd like to do after the presidency, is make sure that I help young people guard against cynicism and do the remarkable things they can do.”

At a separate event, the president pledged to young black men that My Brother’s Keeper would not be like many quickly forgotten presidential initiatives.

“This is not something that’s just a one-off that’s going to happen one time and then we’re done,” Obama said during an event for the program earlier this summer. “This is a movement we are trying to build over the next year, five years, 10 years, so that we can look back and say we were part of something that reverses some trends that we don’t want to see.”

Critics of the administration have said that the program — which focuses largely on schooling and tutoring — doesn’t do enough to address discrimination baked into the criminal justice system.

“The suggestion that My Brother's Keeper could have helped save Michael Brown is ludicrous to the point of being willfully ignorant,” tweeted Jamil Smith, a producer for MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show.

Others have criticized the program for focusing only on the outcomes of young boys, instead of both genders. 

Earlier this summer, more than 1,000 prominent women of color — including actress Rosario Dawson and law professor Anita Hill — signed a letter asking the president to expand the program to include girls.

Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett defended the focus on boys at an event earlier this year, noting they were disproportionately suspended and expelled at school.

“If you’re in a family unit … and the boys are having a particularly hard time, the impact on the entire family is troublesome,” Jarrett told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast. “And so you’re helping the sisters, the moms, the aunts, the uncles.”

In the coming months, the administration’s efforts on My Brother’s Keeper will focus largely on implementing a report, released in May, detailing ways that federal departments and agencies can alter how they implement rules and regulations to help out boys of color.

Administration officials have also heeded the president’s call to personally reach out and help those who would benefit from tutoring. According to an aide, a mentoring program for local boys and men has been established in the West Wing, with staff members at all levels at the White House participating. The initiative mirrors a similar effort assisting girls that already existed in the first lady’s office.

Officials will also keep soliciting private charitable donations. And listening sessions between the White House and minority boys will continue. 

Johnson said the meetings provide a voice to young men who often aren’t listened to until they end up in trouble.

“They’ve got a lot to say about their own lives and the president just really wants to hear a lot of their stories,” Johnson said.

The administration hopes the efforts can help address the systematic issues crystallized in the outrage surrounding Martin’s and Brown’s killings.

“When you look at the disparities in terms of suspension even from preschool, and you look at interactions with the criminal justice system — that's what really drove in large measure the creation of My Brother's Keeper,” Johnson said. “When you look at a situation like what happened in Ferguson, it really points to these kinds of concerns and disparities.”