"Are you talking about you?" President Barack Obama quoted the reaction of a young African-American man at the recent announcement of the My Brother's Keeper Initiative. He had shared his own youthful indiscretions, including not taking school seriously and getting high.
He was making the point that he had been a lot like them at their age. He didn't have to articulate the rest of it -- and now he is president of the United States. What if boys and young men of color across the country actually took that point to heart?
With the initiative, a private-public partnership, Obama turns the national spotlight on the disheartening condition of far too many boys and young men. The statistical profile is beyond alarming, particularly for young African-American men.
Oakland is a microcosm. According to a 2011 report by the Urban Strategies Council, African-American males were worse off in significantly higher percentages than any other group in almost every category: They performed below basic levels in English and math, were chronically absent, were suspended, dropped out, lived in areas with a high violent crime rate, were incarcerated, on probation and on parole. Most chilling of all, in 2010, 61 percent of the city's homicides were African-American males; they make up 12 percent of the city's population.
I almost hate to give the statistics because, as Obama pointed out, we've become numb to them. We've accepted them as the norm instead of recognizing them as the outrage they are.
Of course it's not the norm for huge numbers of a segment of the population to fall behind and fail. Admittedly it's a complex, multifaceted problem. But think of the changes that have occurred when the public will is engaged. When people smoked cigarettes on airplanes and in restaurants, who would have imagined that cigarette smoking would be as restricted and unpopular as it is today? The acceptance of same-sex marriage is another dramatic example. Attitudes and circumstances can change.
As Obama said, we already know the key elements that make a difference in a boy's life -- being prepared for kindergarten, being able to read by the third grade, not getting suspended, and having a father who takes an active role in his son's life.
Far too many African-American children grow up without a consistent relationship with their fathers and likely many of their fathers grew up the same way. In a profound observation, Charles Blow, columnist for The New York Times, said the most potent cure for the hurt of an absent father is the joy of raising one's own children.
Of course, the fathers also have to find work that pays a livable wage. The black unemployment rate, which stays at almost twice that for whites, and the Latino unemployment rate, at 2 percentage points higher than for whites, are a big part of the picture.
It's complicated. But it's absolutely necessary that society address the deplorable life conditions of boys and men of color. You don't have to accept Obama's argument that it's a moral duty. You don't even have to care about the people stuck at the bottom. It's simple arithmetic. As long as they are there, the potential of our society is limited. We don't have the advantage of their contributions, both financial and in terms of human capital. And we are stuck with the expense of the handmaidens of poverty -- poor health and crime. Imagine how strong Oakland would be if her boys and men of color were doing well.
Oakland has a number of organizations that have recognized the urgency of the situation, including Urban Strategies Council and PolicyLink.
"I had to pinch myself. Who would have thought the issues we've been working on would get so much traction at the highest levels of government?" said Marc Philpart, associate director of PolicyLink, who attended Obama's announcement. PolicyLink was instrumental in the formation of the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, a statewide network to improve their life conditions.
That effort has been joined by the Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color, 11 California Assembly members, both Democrats and Republicans. Several of their bills have become law, including one aiming to reduce the number of expulsions and another that moderates the stigma of a criminal conviction for job applicants at state and local agencies.
Philpart said he is encouraged that the president enlisted the private sector and foundations; they have committed $200 million to discovering the strategies that work and expanding them.
"He wants to build on what is already underway and connect with what people in the field are already doing," he said.
We really don't have a choice but to help those who are struggling. They are part of us. My Brother's Keeper. That's the point.