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Who Will Be “My Brother’s Keeper?” The Problematic Nature of Using a Color-blind Approach to Address Racial Inequities


by Anjalé D. Welton & Sarah Diem - February 15, 2016

We critique the Obama Administration’s My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) initiative, which aims to improve the lives of boys and young men of color. We argue the initiative is race conscious given it acknowledges racial inequities do exist; yet there are still elements of color-blindness in its proposed execution. The MBK initiative fails to tackle institutionalized racism as the root cause of systemic inequities, instead imputing boys and young men of color for their own oppression.

The Obama Administration’s call for a community-wide approach to improving the lives of boys and young men of color vis-à-vis his My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) initiative was touted as compelling given activism and global concern that black lives are not given equal value to others. We argue that the initial policy agenda-setting for the MBK initiative was ineffective in naming what is responsible for the systemic inequities this population faces— institutionalized racism. A similar critical voice in policy discourse questions how MBK overshadows issues facing girls and young women of color. Not every important issue makes it to the policy agenda stage (Kingdon, 2011), and when policymaking is negotiated under the guise of white supremacy, those in power decide which black lives and issues matter, and correspondingly attract the greatest interest in the public sphere (see Garza, n.d.).

 

A NATIONAL CALL FOR RACE-CONSCIOUS POLICY DISCUSSIONS AND ACTION

 

President Obama has been criticized for reneging on race-related issues for most of his presidency (Rhodan, 2014; Wingfield & Feagin, 2013), after giving his boldest speech on race during his first presidential campaign (Obama, 2008). Despite the President’s bipartisan efforts, political partisanship has largely interfered with his candor concerning racism. Now that the President is transitioning out of his final term, he declared in his January 20, 2015 State of the Union address that “he has no more campaigns to run” and his “only agenda” is to do what he believes “is best for Americans” (Obama, 2015, p. 19).

 

The President now speaks more candidly about racism, especially since the not-guilty verdict of George Zimmerman who was charged with killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The President has criticized post-racial politics and argued that the present inequities young black men face are complexly linked to our country’s violent history of racial marginalization (Obama, 2014). While the President’s remarks are significant, the current #BlackLivesMatter movement that was started in response to persistent violence on young black bodies1 across the U.S. continues to gain groundbreaking traction in demanding nationwide policy changes to eradicate systemic racism and white supremacy.

 

Collectively these events triggered a race-conscious response from the White House to facilitate policies aiming to eradicate racial disparities in drug sentencing, police brutality, and school discipline (Hudson, 2015; Rhodan, 2014). These responses subsequently coincided with a presidential memorandum to establish the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, and hold all sectors accountable for committing funds and solutions to help boys and young men of color succeed—including philanthropic organizations, business, and government (My Brother’s Keeper, 2014).

 

COLOR-BLINDNESS IN SETTING THE AGENDA

 

We conducted a content analysis of the President’s speech that unveiled MBK to reveal the color-blind racism embedded in this initiative (see Obama, 2014). Bonilla-Silva (2010) proposes four racial ideological frames for color-blind racism, and we examine how two surfaced in the President’s MBK agenda—abstract liberalism and cultural racism. Abstract liberalism suggests that racism is an individual act, each person makes their own choices, and everyone has equal access to opportunities. Cultural racism posits cultural deficit explanations for racially minoritized groups’ position in society such as “Mexicans do not put much emphasis on education” and “blacks have too many babies” (Bonilla-Silva, 2010, p. 48).

 

Color-blind rhetoric is interspersed throughout the President’s speech as he shares exemplars of individuals who “beat the odds” by being “hard working, good citizens,” and despite obstacles [like racism] made “no excuses.” This rationale regrettably appeals to white interests because it holds young men of color responsible for the economic security of all Americans. President Obama (2014) provides a cultural deficit rationale for young men of color who are unemployed, unskilled, or “involved in the criminal justice system…[undermine] family and community stability,” and are “a drag on State and Federal budgets” (2014, para. 2). This deficit portrayal is linked to heteronormative and racist assumptions about what constitutes a quality family structure with the following statistic:


If you’re African American, there’s about a one in two chance you grow up without a father in your house—one in two. If you’re Latino, you have about a one in four chance. We know that boys who grow up without a father are more likely to be poor, more likely to underperform in school. (Obama, 2014, para. 11)

 

The President proposes the Chicago-based “Becoming a Man” (BAM) program as a model that teaches young men of color how to become a “responsible citizen” given its success rate—criminal arrests for young men who participated in the program went down 44% since its inception (Obama, 2014, para. 3). This solution still fails to acknowledge the racist conditions that implicate these men in the criminal justice system. The President received the most applause during his speech when he stated:

 

America stands for anything, it stands for the idea of opportunity for everybody; the notion that no matter who you are, or where you came from, or the circumstances into which you are born, if you work hard, if you take responsibility, then you can make it in this country. (Obama, 2014, para. 7)

 

This statement presumes if racially minoritized groups “take responsibility” they have a choice in how racism affects them. A white supremacist society is consequently freed from any accountability for racism, and instead the burden is placed on those who suffer its effects—boys and young men of color.

 

ACADEMIA'S RESPONSE AND INVOLVEMENT

 

MBK has led to varying responses, narratives, and involvement from the academic community ranging from complete support of the initiative to questioning its gender exclusive framework. Seven major U.S. research centers released a joint policy report soon after the MBK initiative was announced that focused on specific policies and practices at every stage of the educational pipeline.2 The Obama Administration was criticized for not reaching out to education scholars and experts; as a resolution, the report is a resource for MBK development and implementation.

 

The African American Policy Forum (AAPF)3 also campaigned to realign MBK by releasing two open letters to the President. The first, Letter of 250+ Concerned Black Men and Other Men of Color calling for the Inclusion of Women and Girls in “My Brother's Keeper, asks how community challenges can be addressed holistically when the lives of girls and women who are also struggling are rendered invisible (AAPF, 2014a). The second, Why We Can't Wait: Women of Color Urge Inclusion in "My Brother's Keeper," was authored by over 1,400 women of color, called for MBK to include women and girls of color, and prompted the hashtag #WhyWeCantWait (AAPF, 2014b). This was followed by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw’s opinion-editorial in The New York Times that questioned if “females of color must pull even with males in a race to the bottom before they deserve interventions on their behalf?” (2014, para. 8). The White House Council on Women and Girls held a conference and released the report Advancing Equity for Women and Girls of Color since this criticism, and committed $100 million generally, and $18 million specifically, for research (The White House Council on Women and Girls, 2015). However, this amount is only one-third of the $300 million—and growing—in donations for MBK (My Brother’s Keeper, 2014).

 

RECOMMENDATIONS: CHALLENGING SYSTEMIC RACISM, GENDER EXCLUSION, AND ENGAGING IN RACIAL LITERACY

 

Mr. President, we agree with your plea that the nation should not be “numb” to statistics on the fate of young men of color (Obama, 2014, para. 16). However, we are inherently desensitized to racism, and ultimately color-blind, if the solutions in response to these statistics do not address the full extent of the problem. As Crenshaw urged in her op-ed, “what needs to be fixed are not the boys per se, but the conditions in which marginalized communities live” (2014, para. 13). Statistics also show that young girls of color are facing similar struggles and consequences that are often more severe (AAPF, 2014b). Mr. President, we also ask that you, as a father of two young women, not forget that young women of color are doubly marginalized for their race and gender.

 

Finally Mr. President, we encourage you to challenge the hearts and minds of the architects of institutionalized racism—policymakers, educators, and the business community as you prepare to make MBK a post-presidency initiative. These stakeholders need racial literacy training to learn how to recognize that institutionalized racism does indeed exist—only then will they have the anti-racist mindset to develop equitable solutions.

 

Notes

 

1. For more information about the purpose and origins of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, please go to http://blacklivesmatter.com/

2. The seven research centers that published Advancing the Success of Boys and Men of Color in Education include: University of Pennsylvania’s The Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, San Diego State University’s Minority Male Community College Collaborative, Morehouse College’s Morehouse Research Institute, The University of Texas at Austin’s Project MALES and the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color, The Ohio State University’s Todd Anthony Bell National Resource Center on the African American Male, the University of California, Los Angeles’s Black Male Institute, and the Equity and Inclusion Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Retrieved from http://ddce.utexas.edu/projectmales/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/POLICY-REPORT-8-29-141-copy.pdf

3. The African American Policy Forum (AAPF) is one of the leading organizations campaigning for a more inclusive approach to the MBK initiative. The non-profit organization, co-founded in 1996 by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, works to connect academics, activists, and policymakers in order to promote racial justice that considers the intersections of race, gender, class, and related forms of marginalization. Retrieved from http://www.aapf.org/

 

References

 

African American Policy Forum (2014a, May 30). Letter of 250+ concerned black men and other men of color calling for the inclusion of women and girls in “My Brother's Keeper”. Retrieved from http://www.aapf.org/recent/2014/05/an-open-letter-to-president-obama

 

African American Policy Forum (2014b, June 17). Why we can't wait: Women of color urge inclusion in "My Brother's Keeper”. Retrieved from http://www.aapf.org/recent/2014/06/woc-letter-mbk

 

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2010). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in America (3rd ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.


Crenshaw, K. (2014). The girls Obama forgot. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/30/opinion/Kimberl-Williams-Crenshaw-My-Brothers-Keeper-Ignores-Young-Black-Women.html

 

Garza, A. (n.d.). A HerStory of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Retrieved from http://blacklivesmatter.com/herstory/


Hudson, R. (2015). I’m a black ex-cop, and this is the real truth about race and policing. Vox. Retrieved from http://www.vox.com/2015/5/28/8661977/race-police-officer

 

Kingdon, J. W. (2011). Agendas, alternatives, and public policies (2nd ed.). New York: Longman.


Obama, B. (2008, March 18). Transcript: Barack Obama's Speech on Race. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=88478467

 

Obama, B. (2014). Remarks by the President on “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative. Retrieved     

from https://www.whitehouse.gov/my-brothers-keeper

 

Obama, B. (2015). Remarks by the President in State of the Union address, January 20, 2015. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/01/20/remarks-president-state-union-address-january-20-2015

 

Rhodan, M. (2014). Obama looks to boost young minorities. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/10557/obama-my-brothers-keeper-minorities-race/

 

The White House. (2014). My Brother’s Keeper: Creating opportunity for boys and young men of color. Retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/my-brothers-keeper


The White House Council on Women and Girls. (2015). Advancing equity for women and girls of color. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/documents/ADVANCING_EQUITY_FOR_WOMEN_AND_GIRLS_OF_COLOR_REPORT.pdf


Wingfield, A. H. & Feagin, J. R. (2013). Yes we can? Racial framing and the Obama presidency (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 15, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 19455, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 12:50:00 PM

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About the Author
  • Anjalé Welton
    University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
    E-mail Author
    ANJALÉ D. WELTON is an Assistant Professor of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  • Sarah Diem
    University of Missouri
    E-mail Author
    SARAH DIEM is the Director of Graduate Studies and an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis at the University of Missouri.
 
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