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Will President's Initiative Be A 'Game-Changer' For Young Men Of Color?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We'd like to start the program today by taking a look at a new initiative launched by President Obama yesterday. He called it My Brother's Keeper, and it's aimed at helping young men of color overcome difficult odds. When he spoke at the White House yesterday, he recounted some now familiar numbers about things like lower graduation rates for black and Latino young men and more involvement in the criminal justice system. But he also talked in unusually personal terms about his own early struggles. Here's a clip.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I didn't have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it even though I didn't necessarily realize it at the time. I bad made choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn't always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short.

MARTIN: To address these issues as part of My Brother's Keeper initiative, the White House is rallying foundations, business leaders and celebrities to help provide economic and educational opportunities to help young men of color succeed. In fact, the announcement was attended by a strikingly diverse group of players. We wanted to get reaction to this approach so we'll start with an assessment from two guests, and we'll pick up the discussion later in our Barbershop roundtable. First, though, I am joined by Malik Washington. He is the executive director of the William Kellibrew Foundation. That's an advocacy group that fights violence and poverty. Also with us once again, Georgetown law professor Paul Butler. He's the author of "Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice," and he's a formal federal prosecutor. Welcome back to the program, both of you.

PAUL BUTLER: Hey, Michel.


MARTIN: So, Paul, I'm just going to start with you because you have done a lot of research in this area. You've done a lot of writing in this area, and I just wanted to get your initial assessment of the approach that the White House is taking.

BUTLER: So there were all these young, black men from Chicago at the White House yesterday. And I was inspired by the President's connection with them. I'm also from Chicago. I grew up without a dad in the home. So this is personal for me like it is for a lot of African-American men. And for that reason, we want to make sure this program actually works. And there are a lot of these black male achievement programs around. And they're well-intentioned, but they make some mistakes including not understanding the forces that are really holding black and Latino men back. They're too focused on behavior modification. So they have these anger management and training about work ethic. But if you don't have a job to go to, work ethic doesn't really matter.

MARTIN: OK, so your assessment is what? That it doesn't address what you consider the real causes of this issue crisis, whatever you want to call it.

BUTLER: Exactly. At the end of the day, the problems are more structural than cultural. So we can pull up our pants and we can stop calling each other the N-word, but that's not going to change the fact that black unemployment is twice white unemployment or when little Liam acts out, he gets sent to the principal's office. And when little Quamy acts out, he gets the police called on him. So black boys need mentors, yes, but they also need law and policy changes.

MARTIN: All right. Well, I'm going to come back to you in a minute because you've talked also about your concerns about what you called or what other people have called the thug culture. But let's hear from Malik for a minute. Malik, you're also a young, African-American man yourself.


MARTIN: You work a lot with young men as well as men who are, you know, older than you in, you know, counseling and doing all kinds of other things like this. What's your assessment?

WASHINGTON: Well, I think what Paul has said is right. I mean, most of the approaches thus far seem to be in behavior correction. And, wow, we do need the mentors. There's the structural issues. And I think that you're right, Michel. Yesterday's crowd was very diverse, and it was quite of an emotional touch and a various showing [**10:02**]. And what we have to see is if this is genuine and if this is sincere and if this is not just an effort to kind of push back against some a lot of the criticism against Obama and his administration about not addressing these issues. I think the timing is very pertinent. This was initially supposed be announced a couple weeks ago but was canceled due to weather.

But that was in the midst of the Michael Dunn trial. And we're talking about another instance where a young, black male was killed where many of us believe was unjustifiably - or was unjustifiably and was state sanctioned. So I would like to see - it was very vague yesterday as far as what this is going to be. But I just hope that whatever they decide, we don't have a rush of organizations changing their policies to kind of fit into what the White House believes is the best approach and in attempt to get funding and grants because we know when the money is there, people kind of float to it. So I hope that this doesn't necessarily take us off track in terms of community organizations and individuals.

MARTIN: Can I ask you about this because there are other people who would say that this is a - you know, a political initiative. The president's been criticized off and on throughout his tenure by, you know, particular people who feel that he hasn't spoken enough or used enough of his own experience as the first African-American president to advance some of these issues. What - who cares if he's sincere or not as long as the work get's done? I mean, why do you care?

WASHINGTON: Yeah. Well, we do care that it's sincere because if this is just a show and it doesn't go anywhere, that doesn't mean anything for us. If this is just - we're going to make an announcement. And then a couple weeks from now when you all forget and we're not really going to do the things to make sure that the right organizations get the funding and support, to make sure that we do meaningful research to find what is the best way, then, I mean, that's very meaningful. I mean, we - there are - regardless of what President Obama does, there are so many organizations and entities who have been dedicated to our communities, but specifically to this audience of young, black men, to this target. And whatever the White House does, whenever they - this obviously puts a renewed focus on it, and we have to take an advantage of that and find the resources.

But it can also be a distraction. And, you know, we can't have these measures of what other people find successful, you know, kind of distracting what our work is going to be. And I think Paul kind of alluded to that well - if you just want to behavioral studies and fix black male behavior, well, that's a problem.

MARTIN: OK. Well, let me go back to this whole question then - this week marks the second anniversary of Trayvon Martin's death, which is a story that I think we spent a lot of time talking about. I think a lot of people understand and remember. The president highlighted the fact that black and Latino young men are actually more than six times as likely to be murdered than their white peers. And you've talked about the fact that young black men are in more danger from each other than they are from other people. Even though stories like the Trayvon Martin story and the Jordan Davis killing in Florida are very attention-getting, those are a rarity. Is he wrong to focus on behavior if this is the case and these kind of interpersonal interactions that go very wrong for whatever reason, Paul Butler?

BUTLER: The question is how should the most powerful man in the world use his bully pulpit? So should he use it to scold black men like he did yesterday? Once again, saying no more excuses. Or wouldn't it also be super valuable for him to scold big businesses and tell them no more excuses for not paying a living wage so that black men can take care of the kids. No more excuses for not hiring minority contractors or discriminating against people who are coming home from prison. So, yes, African-American men can use all kinds of help from all kinds of quarters but, again, I think this extraordinarily powerful man, who gets all of this attention and has all of these resources, can do things other than just scold black men.

MARTIN: Is he not? He's not in your view, yet?

BUTLER: Well, you know, the proof is in the potato salad.

MARTIN: OK. If you're just joining us, we're talking about my the My Brother's Keeper initiative that the White House launched yesterday. We're speaking with law professor Paul Butler - that's who was speaking just now. Also youth mentor and advocate Malik Washington. You know, Malik, the president also focused a lot on the role that fathers place in young men's lives. This is a theme that he has spoken about before. I'll just play another clip from his remarks yesterday.


OBAMA: We can reform our criminal justice system to ensure that it's not infected with bias, but nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father man who takes an active role in his son's life.

MARTIN: And the president mentioned - well, and also he grew up without a father, this is a point I think most people know - he mentioned that there's a 1 in 2 chance that black men will grow up without a father. So as a mentor yourself, do you feel that this is an important thing to highlight?

WASHINGTON: Well, I mean, it really has the potential to kind of seep into this black pathology mindset in what is wrong with black people. It's obvious that there may be a lot of families or a lot of young men who do not have their biological fathers in the household. But this is when we have to start seriously considering how the differences in black families are - can be different than a lot of different families in America. The bottom line is even if there is not a father in the household, black families, in many ways, often come together in a way where that gap is filled. Now it might not always be like what is to have your biological father in the household and that missing aspect can have negative impacts, but when we start harping on this, as though, you know, this idea of the nuclear family - whatever that may be - mother and father, two kids, two and a half kids and a white picket fence - we shouldn't be striving necessarily for that.

We should be striving to make sure that the young men have everything they need. And if that means having the biological father in the household, which obviously that is great - if they are meaningful then OK. But let's not just keep harping on this black fathers are not there, black fathers are not there. And then, in the meanwhile, neglect all these black fathers who are there and all these family members who come into the gap in this community that is there.

BUTLER: Including black girls, right. So it's not racial justice if it's only half the race. So we need a My Sister's Keeper as much as My Brother's Keeper. There are a lot of categories were black women do worse than black men. They don't make as much money, they're more likely to be poor, less likely to get married. So President Obama says his intent is to show men of color that the country values them and is willing to invest in them, we need to send the same message to women.

MARTIN: Before we let you go - both of you seem very - what's the word I'm looking for - skeptical of this initiative at this stage. And I wondered, do you find anything of value in the president's putting a focus on this issue or not? It would seem that the critical to the success of this would not just be big foundations and corporations, but people like yourself who are active and who work with people and with youth wrapping their hands around it in a way that you already are doing. Paul Butler, I'll just give you the final word - do you see nothing of value in it, in the president putting the spotlight here or is - are you still waiting to see?

BUTLER: This program has the potential to be a game changer. I'm inspired by it. And I'm glad that the president has finally come around to talking about race and doing something meaningful because it's so important. We just really have to work hard. And you're right, all of us have to work hard to make sure the program is successful.

MARTIN: We're going to have to leave it there for now. We'll keep an eye on it and hopefully you'll be engaging with us on this question as well. Paul Butler is a law professor at Georgetown, and he's a former federal prosecutor. Malik Washington is acting executive director of The William Kellibrew Foundation - that's an advocacy group that fights violence and poverty - and he's an active mentor with that organization. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

WASHINGTON: Thank you, Michel.

BUTLER: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.