US President Barack Obama on Thursday launched a very personal appeal to help improve opportunities for boys from minority groups who, he said, resembled him as a youth and faced statistical challenges that their white peers did not.
Noting that he grew up without a father and made poor choices including drug use, Obama said that helping black and Hispanic boys succeed was a moral and an economic imperative for the US.
“This is an issue of national importance. This is as important as any issue that I work on,” Obama said at a White House ceremony with 20 young men “of color” standing on risers behind him.
The program, which will involve increasing mentorship opportunities and efforts aimed at reducing violence among minority boys, is an example of an issue that Obama is pushing on his own while conflicts with the US Congress prevent him from advancing more ambitious legislative priorities.
It could be an important part of the legacy of a president who, despite having nearly three years left in office, is already fighting to avoid being overshadowed by speculation about his successor in the 2016 presidential election.
Advisers described Obama’s involvement in the issue as very personal, and the president’s remarks highlighted his own outrage at statistics that show minority youth facing huge personal and societal roadblocks.
About 86 percent of black boys and 82 percent of Hispanic boys read below proficiency levels in the fourth grade, compared with 58 percent of white boys reading below such levels, according to statistics cited by the White House.
Disproportionate numbers of Latino and African American young men enter the US criminal justice system as well and are more than six times as likely as white young men to be murdered.
“The worst part is, we’ve become numb to these statistics,” Obama, the first black US president, told the audience. “We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life instead of the outrage that it is,” he said to applause.
Through a program called “My Brother’s Keeper,” Obama is hoping to change the trajectory he described.
A new government task force is to study programs that are helping to address the problems and recommend ways to expand those that work well. The group, made up of different government agencies, is to look at federal policies and regulations that address the issue.
Separately, the White House said several foundations would pledge to invest at least US$200 million in programs that address early childhood development, parenting, third grade literacy and school discipline reform. The groups include Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Ford Foundation among others.