Esther Cepeda: A wise investment in America
CHICAGO -- President Obama used very personal terms to introduce his “My Brother’s Keeper” campaign to help young minority men with a variety of coordinated intervention efforts. Citing his own childhood struggles, his anger and subsequent poor decisions—including drug use—Obama made clear that this new effort is very dear to him.
In his announcement speech, the president rattled off facts that, by now, everyone should know by heart: Black students are far less likely than whites to be able to read proficiently by the fourth grade and far likelier to be suspended or expelled from school. Fewer young black and Latino men participate in the labor force compared to young white men.
Then the president scolded us:
“And the worst part is we’ve become numb to these statistics. … We take them as the norm. We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life, instead of the outrage that it is. … But these statistics should break our hearts. And they should compel us to act.”
Indeed, they should.
But maybe they don’t because few non-Hispanic, nonblack, middle-class-and-up people feel as invested in at-risk minority youth as does the first black president of the United States. Perhaps it is because the subject doesn’t hit people in the one place that matters: their sense of self-interest.
There are so many moral reasons to actually be the “keepers” of our less advantaged minority young people that we must agree to move on to why it serves everyone in this country to ensure that at-risk minority men get the opportunity to thrive.
Race, gender and income level have no bearing on whether an initiative like “My Brother’s Keeper” will affect everyday, nonminority people. It will.
Minorities are the fastest-growing segment of our population. It is in the interest of every student and parent in the public school system—not just the struggling schools—to have minority boys in kindergarten and first grade who know their numbers and letters and can pay attention to lessons. The same holds true for teens who can work meaningfully in academic teams and challenge classmates.
Then there is higher education.
Most of us are worried about low minority attendance at U.S. colleges and universities and poor graduation rates for minority men who do enroll. If we could find a way to create a pipeline of academically prepared and hungry-for-success young men of color, higher ed would almost certainly be able to educate them at the same rates it does its white population.
As for the economy, it will eventually gather strength. And when it does, our aging workforce will need healthy, young and highly skilled applicants to take on the challenges of a professional landscape yearning for people who can think on their feet, work with technology and be dependable. Our future workforce productivity—not to mention the stability of the Social Security trust fund—depends greatly on coming-of-age minority men.
And we need to make it all happen efficiently.
Pragmatists across the country should be excited by the Obama initiative’s call for a comprehensive accounting of the disparate, sometimes competing, programs already in operation to meet this mission.
“Government does a lot of work on this issue already,” Cecilia Munoz, the White House director of the Domestic Policy Council, told me. “The first thing this initiative calls for is a task force which will create a report on what we’re already doing and how to focus and apply what we know works to make sure we’re maximizing the impact of every dollar we already spend.
“It’s very hard work to make sure that the Department of Education’s work is aligned with what Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services are already doing in a community. The task force report will be a tremendous catalyst for focusing our collaboration instead of operating as separate units of the federal government.”
President Obama assured, “Now, just to be clear—‘My Brother’s Keeper’ is not some big, new government program.”
Of course it isn’t. Corporations and nonprofit foundations are committing hundreds of millions of dollars to the initiative. They’re leading the charge because they understand that helping at-risk minority men will ultimately lead to a more prosperous America for us all.
Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.