Even When Obama Tinkers at the Edges of Racism It Results in Misunderstanding and Anger

President Obama announced on Thursday a new initiative called "My Brother's Keeper" aimed at bolstering the ability of young men of color to succeed in America. 

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President Obama announced on Thursday a new initiative called "My Brother's Keeper" to help black and Hispanic young men succeed in America. Small-scale, on-the-margins things like this are really all Obama can do on the intractable racial disparities in America, because people love to imagine that those disparities don't exist. But that doesn't mean his opponents aren't going to fight and misrepresent even this.

Let's clarify what the program is and isn't. In short, Obama is creating a task force to figure out how to promote and expand programs that provide young men of color with educational opportunities and jobs. In addition, he's pushed for $200 million in funding from a variety of foundations that will go to programs that support those young men at key points. As Yahoo News reports, those include "prekindergarten education, lifting third-grade reading proficiency, leading schools away from 'zero tolerance' disciplinary policies that kick misbehaving students out of school, and persuading businesses to train and hire young men of color." This is private money going to private programs.

What this is not is an excoriation of African-American culture. In an interview with Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett last night, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly suggested that any attempt to help young black people should start with rap music. As transcribed by Politico:

O'REILLY: "[Y]ou're going to have to get people like Jay Z, like Kanye West, all of these gangsta rappers, to knock it off. ... Listen to me. Listen to me. You got to get where they live, all right? They had idolized these guys with the hats on backwards ... and the terrible rock -- rap lyrics and the drugs and all of that. You got to get these guys. And I think President Obama can do it."

VALERIE JARRETT: "I see exactly what you're coming from. ... [W]hat we showed today is that there is evidence that there are wonderful programs out there that can inspire these young people. The president is a terrific role model. The room today was full of role models of these young boys can look up to. And what we have to do is take what's working and take it to scale."

There are so many things wrong with this, of course. As the Daily Beast's Jamelle Bouie points out, Jay-Z and Kanye "embody the American dream," leveraging their talents into careers and wealth. Neither is a "gangsta rapper," a genre that hasn't existed in any real sense for about a decade. But what O'Reilly is really suggesting is the hoary idea that young black people simply need to take responsibility for themselves, clean up their acts, and they, too, can be rich, respected Americans. Bouie: "He sincerely believes that things will be better if young minority men would stop listening to hip-hop, stop wearing 'urban' fashion, and adopt better role models. But this is nonsense."

Of course it's nonsense. To pretend that the institutional obstacles blocking that path don't exist is willful ignorance. It requires pretending that young black and Latino men can succeed on equal terms despite the following.

  • Blacks and Latinos are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as whites. That's according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, but also according to any other number of studies and historical research.
  • Social mobility — the chance to move out of poverty — has remained flat for at least three decades and trails most other western countries. That mobility varies by region of the country, with the areas that see the least mobility overlapping heavily with the South and Southwest. Or: where blacks and Latinos make up more of the population.
  • Wages within the social classes that in which Americans (black and white alike) are stuck have also stayed flat. As The New Yorker's James Surowiecki pointed out:
Between the late nineteen-forties and the early nineteen-seventies, median household income in the U.S. doubled. That’s what has really changed in the past forty years. The economy is growing more slowly than it did in the postwar era, and average workers’ share of the pie has been shrinking.
  • Blacks are more likely to pay a higher social cost for small offenses. Last year, the ACLU issued a report showing that blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession of marijuana.
  • Young black people frequently also disproportionately face more stringent punishments for misbehavior at school. Earlier this year, the administration called for reducing the frequency with which black youth faced harsher punishment in schools. One study showed that a group of schools that was 18 percent black saw 39 percent of its expulsions involve black youth. Those arrests and expulsions can and do have significant long-term effects on career opportunities.
  • Black students are significantly less likely to be accepted at top-tier colleges. A report from Georgetown University in 2013 showed that the percentage of blacks attending the country's best schools has dropped since 2009. And as The Atlantic noted at the time, while "more blacks and Hispanics are in fact going to college than 18 years ago … they're not ending up at schools with high standards. Instead, they're heading to public, two and four-year open-enrollment colleges."
  • And, of course racism exists. A famous 2003 study by the University of Chicago sent equivalent résumés with different names to multiple employers. The result:
The authors find that applicants with white-sounding names are 50 percent more likely to get called for an initial interview than applicants with African-American-sounding names. Applicants with white names need to send about 10 resumes to get one callback, whereas applicants with African-American names need to send about 15 resumes to achieve the same result.

You can argue that the possession and use of marijuana or getting in trouble at school are things that young minority men can affect. Which is true, to an extent, but skips over the point that the punishment is disproportionate. We went through this in January, when older, white newspaper columnists railed against decriminalized marijuana that they themselves had enjoyed. The point isn't that black kids smoke more pot than white kids; it's that when they're caught, they are more likely to face stronger punishment.

Obama himself is not immune from the argument that O'Reilly makes (and to which Jarrett, likely to move the conversation forward, accedes). In an interview with David Remnick of The New Yorker last month, the president said there was "no contradiction to say that there are issues of personal responsibility that have to be addressed, while still acknowledging that some of the specific pathologies in the African-American community are a direct result of our history." Those pathologies, he later explained, were some of the challenges above: "single-parent households, and drug abuse, and men dropping out of the labor force, and an underground economy."

It's true, there's not a contradiction in calling for responsibility while acknowledging that a long history of racism and calcified social status has kept black Americans at a disadvantage. But suggesting that the two are equal, or even that they're comparable serves only to make the job of fixing the latter more difficult. The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about a speech Obama gave at Morehouse College last year in which he demanded that the students at the historically black school not make "any room for excuses." Coates writes:

Taking the full measure of the Obama presidency thus far, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this White House has one way of addressing the social ills that afflict black people—and particularly black youth—and another way of addressing everyone else. I would have a hard time imagining the president telling the women of Barnard that "there's no longer room for any excuses"—as though they were in the business of making them. Barack Obama is, indeed, the president of "all America," but he also is singularly the scold of "black America."

Obama could simply demand that the nation fix those pathologies, which, he notes to Remnick, also hamper white people. That he doesn't, that he scolds blacks, helps give Bill O'Reilly the space to call for black men to simply shape up their acts.

Efforts to improve the lot of young black and Latino men don't need more roadblocks. The "My Brother's Keeper" initiative is based in part on efforts from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose own efforts to instill a sense of moral rigor in minority communities included the deeply racially-imbalanced stop-and-frisk practices by that city's police. But it's at least something — trying to fight poverty by getting kids into pre-K and fight racism by keeping kids in school and getting them jobs someday. Class and race are inextricable and kept wrapped together by old and new prejudices that even the President of the United States can't unravel. Congress could do a lot to solve these problems, but Congress isn't doing anything about anything, much less going out of its way to resolve long-standing inequalities.

Early reviews of the initiative are in from Obama's opponents. The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin who compares the program unfavorably to the recent outcry about Arizona's anti-gay measure, as though this is a step backward from that shining beacon of hope. Her essay begins: "If you are wondering how a new initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, which would assist at-risk African and Hispanic males, is constitutional, you are not alone." The argument is that Obama is showing preference for one race or group of races over another, concluding that, "no good can come from a program that divides up the population by these categories."

Fox News' religious rabble-rouser Todd Starnes tweeted the equivalent of why isn't there a White History Month?: "Obama announces government initiative to help young men of color. Caucasian is not one of the colors getting helped."

There have been 200-plus years of government initiatives aimed at helping Caucasians. Explicitly, in some regions of the country, until 50 years ago. Because the government at large hasn't reversed the obvious disparities outlined above, the president is corralling what he can to do so. If Todd Starnes wants his kid to join the pre-K program so that he has a better shot at a brighter future, I'm sure no one would complain. But Starnes' kids don't need that help.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.