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'My Brother's Keeper' Is a Keeper

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If current trends continue young men of color are on the path to becoming an endangered species. But there will be no wildlife reserves to care for the lucky few. Homicide rates of black males are 18 times higher than white men. And one in three black males and one in six Latino males will go to prison in their lifetime. The odds are invariably stacked against them. Communities of color have seen spikes in violence, drug use, deteriorating education rates and an unprecedented number of broken families over the past several decades. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2008, 13 percent of Hispanic males had a college degree, compared with 30 percent of white males, 19 percent of black males and 56 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander males. And among 16-24 year old males of color not enrolled in school, fewer than half have jobs and about a third are in prison, jail, on probation or parole.

So when President Obama announced his initiative to build opportunities for young men of color last week, I would venture to guess that black and brown communities across the nation at first took a collective sigh of relief. Obama has endured heavy criticism from minority groups and leaders for not tailoring his policies toward their needs. While he avoided issues of race during most of his first term, the President has finally taken steps in his second term to combat racial disparities in public policy. He addressed the issue of racial profiling after George Zimmerman was found not guilty of killing unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. His administration has launched efforts to curb disparities in drug sentencing and school discipline. And a year ago, the President met with a classroom of young African American boys at Chicago's Hyde Park Academy High School working to overcome the dangers of the city's South Side.

Many of those young men stood at Obama's side in the White House as he announced "My Brother's Keeper," his administration's initiative that brings together businesses and foundations to help disadvantaged men and boys realize their full potential. Various organizations have already invested $150 million and have pledged to invest at least $200 million over the next 5 years.

And yet, critics of President Obama accuse him of paying nothing more than lip service to the issue. Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, calls the program unconstitutional and a form of profiling. Others still, chide that the program excludes women. And then there are those who question the Commander in Chief's right to tell young men living in economically impoverished neighborhoods with poor schools, violent crime and broken homes, "no excuses," when he himself attended good schools in decent neighborhoods.

The problem with these arguments is they ignore the fact that men of color are marginalized with regards to the most pressing issues of our time -- including the economy, education, the criminal justice system and healthcare -- more severely than most other groups in the nation. Solutions that white or Asian men might employ to address these issues are unlikely to work as effectively for black males. I would implore critics of the program to consider the psychological impact of the nation's first African American president turning to the country's black and brown young men not only shining a light on their plight and urging the rest of the country to do the same, but also pledging to help them overcome such adversities if they're willing to do the work. Perhaps then, many more man of color will become less comfortable with the stereotypes that have come to define them a push back against the stereotype threat.

First described by social psychologist Claude Steele, the stereotype threat is a psychological experience of anxiety or concern in which a person could confirm a negative stereotype about their social group. Few other groups experience the phenomenon to the degree that men of color do. If negative stereotypes are present in a specific group, people belonging to that group are likely to become anxious about their performance, hindering their ability to perform at their maximum capacity. The impact of the stereotype threat increases when members of a particular group expect discrimination due to their identification with a negatively stereotyped group, such as African American males. Now imagine the reverse: that successful males -- black, brown and other -- including the nation's first black president, encourage other young men of color too strive for better opportunities and goals. And imagine, over time that young men of color begin viewing themselves less as statistics and more as achievers.

On its face, sure, the President's initiative seems small. In fact the $150 million that has already been invested in the program could probably go a long way to improving circumstances for male youth of color in Chicago alone before any other cities are even addressed. But it is a step in the right direction. But if the initiative is successful it will not only encourage the rest of the country to pay attention to these disturbing trends but it will also be a great impetus for self-motivation. Too often the only time issues concerning men of color are addressed on a national scale are when another one has become the victim of violence at the hands of a person of a different race. But children of color are victims of disproportionate rates of violence in communities of color on a daily basis and too often these instances are regarded as national statistics rather than the national tragedy that they are. Hopefully it will encourage more people in communities of color to employ the strategies our forefathers and mothers used to spur monumental change 50 years ago. Remember those rights they fought so hard for? We've still got them, along with 535 voting members of Congress and scores of other elected officials at the local, state and national level who we can encourage to join in this struggle.