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Thursday, 13 March 2014

What would make a real difference for youth?

The Obama administration's "My Brother's Keeper" initiative falls short of what's needed to help youth of color. Elizabeth Schulte has some more radical suggestions instead.
Black youth fill Chicago's City Hall to demand real resources to end violence and reverse cuts (Sarah-ji Fotógrafa)Black youth fill Chicago's City Hall to demand real resources to end violence and reverse cuts (Sarah-ji Fotógrafa)
AT A press conference announcing a new White House initiative focused on young men of color, Barack Obama recounted a meeting he had with the group Being A Man in Chicago:
I explained to them that when I was their age, I was a lot like them. 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 made bad 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.
With this very personal message, Obama introduced the initiative called "My Brother's Keeper," whose goal is to persuade nonprofits and the private sector to unite for projects that will "build ladders of opportunity for boys and young men of color."
Predictably, conservatives freaked out. Some called out Obama's admission of smoking pot. Others accused Obama of discrimination--because the program is exclusively aimed at young Black and Brown men. Roger Clegg of the misnamed Center for Equal Opportunity actually charged Obama with "profiling."
This response, of course, represents the bigotry of a tiny and wildly out-of-touch fraction of the population, which cares very little about the ever-declining prospects for young people of color. Only someone with their head in the sand could ignore the facts:
-- Blacks use marijuana at roughly the same rate as whites but are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, according to the ACLU.
-- Black students are three and a half times more likely as their white peers to be suspended or expelled, according to the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. In the Chicago Public Schools, Black students accounted for 76 percent of all students suspended, though they are only 45 percent of the student body.
-- Nearly half of the 4 million young people who are unemployed are African American or Latino--and youth unemployment is higher than it has been in decades.
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THE BROTHER'S Keeper initiative is an acknowledgment of the obstacles that Black youth face every day of their lives--and a welcome recognition of reality by the Obama administration, which has studiously avoided the issue of racism during its time in the White House.
But will the My Brother's Keeper program make a difference?
The first problem is that the program is underfunded. The White House reports that 10 major foundations, alongside some smaller contributors, will contribute $200 million to fund programs over the next five years. But while this number was widely circulated in the media, it isn't based on firm financial commitments, which amount to more like $7.5 million.
Second, the goals of the initiative are unclear, as demonstrated by the vague and tortured wording of the White House "fact sheet." Possible key areas may include early child development and school readiness, parenting and parent engagement, educational opportunity and school discipline reform.
Or maybe not. The actual content appears to be up to the foundations to decide. In other words, the mainstream philanthropic foundations, run by some of the richest and most powerful people in the world--Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Ford Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation--will be deciding what Black youth need to succeed.
Obama's adviser and cabinet secretary Broderick Johnson will head up the task force. After serving in the Clinton administration, Johnson was a lobbyist for several big-name corporations, including GEO Group, a private prison and detention company, and TransCanada Corp., the company behind the Keystone XL pipeline.
That's a pretty different life story from people who stood alongside Obama at the press conference to launch My Brother's Keeper--teenagers who spoke about their struggles with crime in their neighborhood, hardships at home and difficulties at school. The families of Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin--two young Black men slain by racists who used Stand Your Ground laws as their defense--also attended.
Shouldn't these be the people who decide what a plan for at-risk youth should look like--rather than a corporate lobbyist?
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AND WHILE the details about programs under the initiative were left vague, Obama made one thing very clear at the press conference--a big component will be personal responsibility.
"[I]n this effort, government cannot play the only--or even the primary--role," Obama said. Near the end of his speech, he declared that "we need to encourage fathers to stick around and remove the barriers to marriage and talk about responsibility."
No surprise that conservative Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker applauded this point--but not before using the opportunity to list her complaints about young Black people:
Rather than tackling the source of problems in minority communities, we have embraced a pop culture that celebrates destructive behavior via movies and music.
Magazine covers and chatty television shows, meanwhile, cutesify the tragedy of casual procreation by touting baby-daddies and baby-mamas, who aren't so adorable in the inner city where the biological offspring of such lyrical liaisons are most often doomed to a life without much promise.
A culture faced with such challenges can only benefit from the president's attentions, especially as he has sway with the media that shape so much of our culture. The uniqueness of his outreach isn't only that he is a man of color and has shared the sorrow of having to imagine his father's dreams, but also that he is inoculated from criticisms that might have been raised against a different politician. This is gratifying progress and marks a victory of common sense over ideology.
It's a pretty big contradiction for Obama to reference so many systemic problems that block progress for Black youths--unemployment, poor education, being the target of law enforcement--and then turn around and call for personal solutions.
But even worse is the fact that personal solutions just don't fit reality. As many millions upon millions of people can attest, being married or having a man present in the household is no guaranteed ticket to success--any more than being a single mother makes failure certain.
The real difference comes from having enough resources to provide for families, however many people of whichever gender are part of them. Resources like living wages and access to child care don't magically appear because people act "responsibly."
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OBAMA'S PRESS conference drew needed attention to the social and economic realities facing young Blacks and Latinos in the U.S.--realities that have their roots in the racist inequality that exists in all American institutions. Confronting that inequality will obviously take more than a White House task force to accomplish.
But that said, there are some initiatives that would immediately make a meaningful difference in the lives of Black youth. To name a few:
-- End racist policing policies like stop-and-frisk and the "war on drugs."According to a New York Civil Liberties Union report of stop-and-frisk encounters, in 2011, the NYPD's total number of searches of young Black men surpassed the total number of young Black men living in the city. The stop-and-frisk program is notoriously ineffective at uncovering anything illegal--but it's very effective at making sure that young people of color always face the prospect of police abuse, if not worse. Putting an end to stop-and-frisk would remove the target from the backs of Black and Latino youths.
The "war on drugs," meanwhile, is a key component of this assault on Black youth. While youth of all races use and sell drugs at similar rates, according to the ACLU, minority youth represent 60 percent to 75 percent of drug arrests today. Young Blacks are incarcerated at 25 times the rate of white youth--for Latinos, the figure is 13 times. There is no possible rationale for this, other than institutionalized racism.
And if you wanted to do something about the persecution and outright lynching of young Black men by racist vigilantes, here's another suggestion--abolish all "Stand Your Ground" laws, which are overwhelmingly used to defend whites who shoot Black victims, and rarely the other way around.
-- Shut down the school-to-prison pipeline. It's a testament to the work of criminal justice activists that the Obama administration is finally addressing punitive zero-tolerance policies in schools that criminalize children, even for the smallest infractions.
In January, the administration released guidelines proposing that schools move away from suspension, expulsion or arrest. These are great proposals, but they would mean a lot more if they were more than suggestions.
But that would require funding--money to hire teachers necessary to make class sizes small enough to adequately handle students' concerns, and more counselors to work with students who need them. If you need a suggestion for where this funding should come from, try the for-profit prison industry.
-- Provide public schools with the funding they need and deserve. The schools that Black and Latino children go to are often ill-equipped to deal with the myriad issues that poor and working-class children face--not for lack of effort and initiative, but because they are chronically underfunded and the teachers overworked.
However, instead of devoting the necessary money to public schools, the Obama administration, with Education Secretary Arne Duncan leading the way, has instead supported the corporate school "reform" agenda. In addition to more senseless testing and attacks on teachers' unions, reform means the imposition of the private sector into education.
So, for example, in cities like Chicago, public schools have been starved of funds, deemed failing and then closed--clearing the way for a charter school pop up down the block, or in the same building.
Stopping the proliferation of charter schools would go a long way toward meeting another stated goal of the Obama administration--getting rid of zero-tolerance policies. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett claim they're revising disciplinary policies to get rid of punishment for small infractions such as bringing a cell phone to school.
If they were serious about this, they would end their support of charter schools, where strict discipline and codes of conduct are notorious. Two years ago, one Chicago charter high school came under investigation after female students were subjected to strip searches.
Take education away from the corporations and give it back to the professionals--public schools educators.
-- Open up access to living-wage jobs. To start with, the Obama administration could re-invest in federal and state job-training programs that have been ruthlessly cut over the last decade--but that's just the bare minimum that the federal government could do to create jobs.
Employers should be banned from requiring that job applicants provide their criminal record, a policy that unfairly penalizes the hundreds of thousands of Black and Latinos who, through no fault of their own, have been caught in the ever-widening net of the criminal justice system. According to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission study in 2010, 92 percent of large employers run background checks on prospective employees.
Raising the minimum wage to a living wage is another obvious place to start, not just for minority youth, but for all the workers--of all ages--who now depend on minimum-wage jobs to provide for families. In fact, during the Great Recession, minority youth have been pushed out of low-wage jobs by workers who, in the past, would have found better employment.
It's time for the government stop begging corporations to invest in philanthropic ventures of their choosing to help Black youths--and start mandating them to pay higher wages that can provide for workers and their families.

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