My Brother's Keeper, but Maybe Not My Sister's

The White House is pushing a new initiative to keep young men of color out of prison and improve their outcomes. But what about young women?

Gretchen Ertl / Reuters

President Obama has chosen his legacy. In 2014, the White House launched an initiative called My Brother’s Keeper, designed to “help every boy and young man of color who is willing to do the hard work to get ahead.” In May of this year, a corporate-backed non-profit organization was formed to focus on issues like early education, job preparedness, and, notably, keeping boys of color out of prison.

“My Brother’s Keeper grew out of the Zimmerman verdict, when the president said, ‘We all have to do some soul searching to figure out how we will treat one another,’” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to the president, during a session at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Wednesday. These issues seem particularly timely in light of the many recent incidents of police violence against black men, including the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Jarrett also cited the overwhelming statistics of mass incarceration: Since 1980, the U.S. prison population has increased nine-fold, she said. But for the president, it’s also personal. “[The president] sees himself in it. There’s a very personal identification as a man of color,” said Broderick Johnson, the White House cabinet secretary and chair of the My Brother’s Keeper task force, after a different session.

What about girls and women?

Earlier this year, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research released a report on some of the early findings of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative. What they found, using indicators including rates of homicide, suicide, incarceration, poverty, bullying, debt, and sexual violence, is that “the evidence does not support that men and boys of color are worse off than women and girls of color,” said Chandra Childers, a post-doctoral researcher at the organization, in an interview.

As Melinda D. Anderson wrote for The Atlantic in May:

Black girls are six times more likely to be suspended from school than white girls are, compared to black boys, who are suspended three times more often than their white peers are. In interviews, black girls report feeling marginalized in learning environments that they often describe as unsafe and unwelcoming and subjected to sexual harassment and violence. And family responsibilities, like caring for siblings, disproportionately fall on black girls.

During her session, Jarrett argued that nearly evert metric of well-being is stacked against young men of color, particularly when compared to young white men:

Right now, by every single metric—whether it’s quality of early childhood education, whether they’re reading by third grade … whether they’re finishing high school, whether they’re going to college, whether they’re getting expelled or suspended from school, whether they are in the juvenile-justice system, which leads right to the adult penal system—by every single metric, boys and young men of color are lagging.

But it’s not clear that girls of color are faring better—or getting equal support from government initiatives. Johnson said that the White House’s initiatives are gender- and race-inclusive, partly because that’s required by law. And Jarrett chairs the White House Council on Women and Girls, an effort to make sure federal agencies take the distinctive needs of girls and women into account in policymaking. But for My Brother’s Keeper, “where the disparities are greatest, the work we’re doing will have the greatest impact on boys and men of color,” Johnson said.

This word, disparities, is complicated. Outcomes for girls and boys of color are hard to measure objectively, because assessments depend in part on what certain organizations believe is most important. Childers pointed out that “suicide attempts, depression rates, mental health, dating and sexual violence—those are not included on [My Brother’s Keepers’] indicators.” As the authors wrote in the Institute for Women’s Policy Research report, “A males-only focus could lead to a disproportionate allocation of philanthropic and public dollars toward addressing the needs of boys and young men of color, while the under-recognized, and often pressing needs of girls and young women of color continue to go unmet.”

“The legacy of absence that has been left [by] incarceration is scandalous.”

Angela Glover Blackwell, the founder and CEO of the advocacy organization PolicyLink, said that efforts to help young people of color can’t be focused on either girls or boys exclusively—it has to be both.

“Having worked on teenage pregnancy and many problems involving girls and young women of color, I know how intertwined their issues are with the men that are there and the men that are not there,” she said. “The legacy of absence that has been left in the community because of this sucking out of men from incarceration is scandalous.”

If anything, these issues are only becoming more urgent. A majority of American kids under five are of color, and by the end of this decade, a majority of kids under 18 will be of color, Blackwell said.

“I don’t think we want to take away from this momentum on boys, because it is desperately needed,” she said. But “I hope we will have an initiative that has this much attention that also focuses on girls.”