As the mother of two phenomenal black men, whom I raised as a single mother, I know personally why we need President Barack Obama's new initiative called My Brother's Keeper.

Young men of color in America have been left behind, the economic gains of our recovery aren't reaching them, and time and again, they are marginalized and forgotten.

They are stopped and frisked at will and incarcerated more than any other demographic. They are gunned down outside their homes. Their schools are likely crumbling if they are open at all, and their dismally low reading levels are mirrored in low graduation rates.

The jobs that are available pay poorly, and Republicans continue to gut nutrition assistance programs and slash the social safety net at every turn.

Let's not fool ourselves: Historic biases and institutional racism and discrimination are at the heart of some of these policies that are keeping our nation's African-American boys and young men from rising above their circumstances and realizing their full potential. From three-strikes laws to mandatory-minimum sentencing, there are policies and laws on the books that are steeped in systemic racism, intentional or not, and this must be part of the conversation.

What will it take to turn the tide? The costs associated with appropriate job training for the jobs that exist, a modern education for good-paying jobs, and health care that will close health disparities pale in comparison to the costs of the lost potential of these young men.


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When I was in the California Legislature, many of these issues were addressed when I served as chair of the California Commission on the Status of African-American Males. In 1998, we found that there were more than five times as many young African-American men under the control of the criminal justice system than there were African-American males enrolled in four-year degree programs. That statistic still astounds me today.

That commission sparked a fruitful discussion in our state, and many of the findings and recommendations are still relevant today: Find ways to help schools teach young black men entrepreneurial skills; provide a high-quality public education; ensure cultural diversity training for teachers; fully revamp the penal code to make certain that nonviolent offenders are given access to drug treatment programs, not overly lengthy sentencing, and that young African-American men aren't subject to racially charged sentencing.

It is my hope that the My Brother's Keeper initiative builds on those best practices and produces a positive change across the country, and especially in Oakland, where barely 50 percent of African-American young men make it to high school graduation.

What My Brother's Keeper emphasizes is the need for public/private partnerships on every level, and we know from experience that these programs hold the promise of success.

Operation Ceasefire, the Thriving Students program and the Oakland School District's Office of African-American Male Achievement are steps in the right direction, and we must not lose hope.

My Brother's Keeper, I know, is a priority for the president, and his recently released budget begins to support these programs with robust investments in universal pre-K, job training, and in our social safety net.

However, we must take responsibility and support our communities, dismantle discriminatory laws, and force positive change, but this also requires political action. For our sons, but also for our daughters, we must fully embrace the bright future that I know we can have.

Rep. Barbara Lee represents the East Bay in the U.S. House of Representatives.