Last year, U.S. President Barack Obama visited a Chicago organization that helps young black men. At one of its meetings, sitting in a circle in a large room, Obama shared with the adolescents some of his own frustrations at having grown up, like them, without a close father figure. Like them, he had neglected his studies in high school. Like them, he had felt the rage of being alone. When he finished talking in one of the sessions, the boy sitting next to him asked, “Are you talking about you?”
Obama, who has met with the teenagers several times since, recalled the anecdote last Thursday during the presentation of his “My Brother’s Keeper” project. The project aspires to reduce the large numbers of young black and Latino men who drop out of high school, help integrate them in their communities and get the message across that they, like the president, can go far.
“I could see myself in these young men,” said Obama, who was brought up by a single mother and his grandparents. “And the only difference is that I grew up in an environment that was a little bit more forgiving. So when I made a mistake the consequences were not as severe.”
Black adolescent boys in the U.S. are six times more likely to be murdered than white boys the same age, and make up half of all murder victims in the country each year. As well as this, one in two lives in a home without a father figure. In the case of Latino boys, the figure is one in four, said the president, surrounded by young black men from Chicago, in the East Room of the White House.
“The worst part is, we've become numb to these statistics,” said Obama. “This is as important as any issue that I work on.” The president stressed that the motivation that led him to run for president is one of the main governing principles of the U.S., equality of opportunity; it was this principle that he defended last Thursday, as he has done so many times during his presidency. “The notion that no matter who you are or where you came from, or the circumstances into which you are born, if you work hard, if you take responsibility, then you can make it in this country.”
However, Obama added a dose of realism that does not always accompany celebrations of the American Dream. “The plain fact is there are some Americans who in the aggregate are consistently doing worse in our society. Groups that have had the odds stacked against them in unique way that require unique solutions, groups who have seen fewer opportunities that have spanned generations.” According to the president, “by almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century, in this country, are boys and young men of color.”
In his last State of the Union address, Obama referred to young black and Latino men affected by poverty, to remind Americans that “we're still not reaching enough kids ... and that has to change.” He argued that young men of color tend to receive negative messages from society. He reminded the audience “about the need to bolster and reinforce our young men and give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them.”
In a hesitant tone, closer to personal reflection than a presidential speech, Obama revisited this argument, inviting young black and Latino men to take responsibility for their own future, and the rest of U.S. society to make sure that these young men do not fall behind.
“We know that during the first three years of life, a child born into a low-income family hears 30 million fewer words than a child born into a well-off family,” said the president. “A 30-million-word deficit is hard to make up. And if a black or Latino kid isn't ready for kindergarten, he's half as likely to finish middle school with strong academic and social skills.”
During his presidency, Obama has frequently been criticized for not doing enough to help African Americans, one of the groups most affected by the economic crisis. At the same time, he has avoided explicitly identifying himself with his race. He only broke the rule to which he had subscribed since his electoral campaign in 2008 after the vigilante shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida. “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” he said at the time.
Last Thursday, in the presence of Martin’s parents, the president reiterated his concern about the circumstances affecting young African American men and the consequences these can have throughout the adolescents’ lives. He reminded the audience that 86 percent of 10-year-old black boys and 82 percent of their Hispanic classmates have a low reading level for their age, compared with 58 percent of white boys.
The initiative, funded by around $2 billion in private investment, is backed by leaders such as ex-Secretary of State Colin Powell, Chicago Mayor and Obama’s ex-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, ex-Mayor of New York and businessman Michael Bloomberg, and senator Cory Booker, all of whom were present for the president’s speech.