Obama's 'Brother's Keeper' Effort: Noble But Incomplete

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With the launch of the My Brother's Keeper initiative, President Barack Obama says he wants to empower young men of color to achieve success in school and society.

Although the initiative is in many ways symbolic, there is substantial support for efforts to create new programs that involve mentoring at-risk boys and to build a body of research for reformers to draw upon in developing best practices. While some will no doubt charge the president with racism for targeting youths of color, and others have already voiced skepticism about what Mr. Obama has done in support of blacks to this point, few observers are likely to question why the initiative focuses solely on males and appears to tie together success and manhood in ways that are unsettling for advocates of gender equity.

As a civil rights advocate, I applaud the president's efforts—to an extent. The data demonstrating that males of color are among our most endangered students are indisputable. Among black college graduates, only about 34 percent are male. Black males grossly outnumber whites in suspensions and expulsions and are overrepresented in special education and underrepresented in Advanced Placement classes.

But the "boy problem" is hardly a new phenomenon; it dates back to the early 20th century. The boys who occasioned the earlier crisis were almost entirely poor immigrants, and they swelled the ranks of dropouts and delinquents. In 1917, educational psychologist Edward Thorndike reported for the U.S. Commissioner on Education that girls were more likely than boys to graduate from high school by a significant margin.

"In our quest to promote success for males, we may overlook girls of color who, while doing better in many venues, still suffer academically in comparison to both white males and females."

Instead of rethinking schooling to accommodate immigrant boys, educators too often shoved them into special education classes and public schools created specifically for boys. Believing there was a unique boyish essence that must be catered to, educators offered same-sex practical education with male role models. They did little to address the issues of poverty and discrimination these young men encountered. And they failed horribly when it came to getting young males to question some of the tenets of masculinity that contributed to the very problems that reformers were trying to eradicate.

Today's boys of color encounter a very different world. Although immigrants were often poor, many of them found opportunities to work their way up the blue-collar ladder. They didn't experience the entrenched racism that blocked the doors to respectable working-class jobs for black youths and men. While employment discrimination has lessened since the 1970s, in today's economy the job ladder has weakened and decent jobs are sparse. Zero-tolerance policies in schools have supplied fodder for the criminal-justice system; blacks make up 37 percent of the youths in detention facilities, but only 16 percent of the total youth population. But we still don't know enough about the variety of factors that make some boys particularly vulnerable to violence and impervious to school's importance.

The emphasis on research in the Obama initiative is heartening. Too many past programs were built on stereotypes about how boys learn best. Difficult and delinquent boys were herded together in male-only classrooms with male teachers in the 1920s and 1930s, even when there were better female teachers to be had, and boys toughed it out in schools where tough love could mean a thrashing. There was similarly little existing research to build on when, starting in 2006, same-sex classes and academies started sprouting up across the nation to better educate boys of color. Instead, many operated on the basis of what the American Civil Liberties Union has termed "repackaged stereotypes" in their efforts to enroll boys.

President Obama's initiative focuses on gathering research on early-childhood education, school readiness, and parenting, among other things, but says nary a word about male peer groups and stereotypes of masculinity that may foster attitudes toward school and society that put boys at a disadvantage compared with girls.

One of the programs that the president sees as a model, "Becoming a Man" in Chicago, has already received excellent marks for reducing delinquency and producing college graduates. The name of the program, however, harkens back to an earlier era. Aren't boys becoming men whether or not they achieve academic success? And aren't we really interested in their becoming successful and morally responsible students and members of society?

In our quest to promote success for males, we may overlook girls of color who, while doing better in many venues, still suffer academically in comparison to both white males and white females. It is appalling that 17 percent of black male youths have been expelled from school compared with 1 percent of white males, but the fact that 8 percent of black females have also been expelled, in contrast to less than 1 percent of white females, is quite remarkable as well. And black girls are more likely than their white counterparts to drop out of school. This despite the fact that virtually no national initiatives are devoted to empowering young black girls.

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At the same time, why not investigate some of the protective factors that allow some young black women to have greater success in school than their male counterparts? In our attempt to broaden opportunities for women, we have encouraged girls to develop characteristics such as speaking up, being assertive, and stepping out of typical gender roles. It might just be that girls are doing something right and that boys could learn from them.

We need to address the very real obstacles boys of color face in school and society, where they are often shortchanged and subjected to discipline policies that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. Education policy is no real substitute for social measures aimed at alleviating poverty and joblessness that plague communities of color.

Finally, we might ask boys (and their educators) to question some entrenched ideas about gender and masculinity that not only impede their academic success, but also do little to advance gender and racial equality among our young people.

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