Obama’s Initiative for Young Men of Color & the Rhetoric of Individual Responsibility

26 Mar

[By Pete Souza (White House Flickr Account) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

A few weeks ago, President Obama announced a new initiative designed to increase opportunities for young Black and Latino men. Acknowledging that Black and Latino men lag behind other groups in educational achievement and employment, while outnumbering white men in jails and prisons, at first glance, the President’s “My Brother’s Keeper” campaign seems like a much needed and timely project. However, when examining Obama’s rhetoric more closely, the initiative falls short of addressing the root causes and structural reasons for racial disparities in the US and instead perpetuates a neoliberal language of individual responsibility.

The President’s initiative to improve the situation of Black and Latino boys and men clearly tackles an important issue. Data consistently shows that they are less likely to finish high school or enroll in college, more likely to be unemployed and more likely to end up incarcerated (that said, The Nation rightfully asks why equal attention is not being paid to girls and women of color who are similarly shortchanged when compared to white women). Although the specifics of the ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ initiative are not yet clear, President Obama’s speech implies that a significant chunk of $200 million for the project will go toward educational projects, in order to provide pre-k education and especially boost literacy.

While investing in education clearly is not a bad idea, the solution proposed by ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ are far too limited and do not address the actual causes of poverty and lack of chances among people of color. Moreover, for every step forward Obama’s speech seems to make, it also takes two steps back, pushing an ideology of individual responsibility, ‘good choices’ and respectability that flies in the face of the racialized legacy of US history and present. While it is true that Obama acknowledges that the odds are stacked against Black and Latino boys and cautiously hints at the potential need for economic and criminal justice reform, these statements are few and far between and he provides no real analysis of the structural forces impacting the lives of boys (and girls) of color. Instead, he more extensively draws on the ideology of hard work and overcoming the odds to put the responsibility back on the victims of the US racial and economic system – a rhetorical move that has been employed (as well as critiqued) over and over again when it comes to African American community.

In his speech, Obama draws comparisons to his own biography:

I didn’t have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realized at the time. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short. […]

But nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son’s life.

Tapping into the stereotype of the dysfunctional and father-less Black family, Obama here ultimately reduces the adversity young men of color face to the household and pretends their life chances are primarily a function of “choices” rather than structural forces shaping their experience and opportunities. He goes on to argue:

It may be hard, but you will have to reject the cynicism that says the circumstances of your birth or society’s lingering injustices necessarily define you and your future. It will take courage, but you will have to tune out the naysayers who say the deck is stacked against you, you might as well just give up or settle into the stereotype. .

Although cautiously acknowledging the “lingering injustices” of US society, Obama’s vision for improvement for these young Black and Latino men is one of individual responsibility, rooted in the choices they make. Rather than proposing to collectively overcome these “injustices” by transforming society, he calls upon boys to individually overcome “injustices”; rather than changing the odds, individual Black and Latino men are supposed to make it despite the unfavorable odds. According to Obama, it seems to be that the problem is a feeling of being powerless and being excluded rather than the reality of powerlessness and exclusion itself.

To be sure, a message of surviving and overcoming adversity can be an important and powerful one. But if that is all that political leadership has to offer, it not only falls short but ultimately reveals itself as counterproductive, as a discourse that buys into the neoliberal values of radical individualism and personal responsibility. The biographical tale about one of his White house staff members that Obama recounts in his speech is exemplary of the lack of vision inherent in Obama’s initiative for minority men. Toward the end of his address, the President uses one of his staff members, Maurice ‘Moe’ Owens, and his biographical trajectory to illustrate how success in the face of adversity is possible. Growing up in a single-parent household, his mother was able to get him into a good school, he found adults willing to mentor him and he continued to ‘make good choices’. Obama concludes the story by arguing “… Moe never misses a chance to tell kids who grew up just like he did that if he can make it, they can, too.” What, of course, is lost in this story of individual success is the fact that for every Maurice Owens, there are countless of young men who do not make, despite working hard and despite their mothers (and fathers) supporting them to the best of their ability. Instead of merely giving shout-outs to those that manage to get their children into adequate schools and that manage to support them despite economic hardships, shouldn’t it be the task of politics to provide high-quality education for all children (including sufficient funding for schools regardless of the tax base of the local community), ensure that no child has to grow up in poverty, create economic security for all and reform the school-to-prison pipeline that funnels young men of color into the criminal justice system at young ages?

Despite its good intentions, Obama’s speech and his initiative to uplift young men of color is not only insufficient but fundamentally flawed. To argue that the criminal justice system can be reformed “to ensure that it’s not infected with bias”, as Obama claims, while in the same speech praising former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg for expanding the opportunities of Black and Hispanic teenagers in education – the same Michael Bloomberg who fought for the right of his police department to racially profile, stop and frisk young men of color until his very last days in office – can only be called cynical. And for the President of the United States to acknowledge the legacy of racism that continues to shape the opportunity of people of color in the US while at the same time merely proposing mentorship, education and ‘good choices’ instead of pushing for deep economic, political and legal reforms – to pass off charitable projects as policy and to limit our collective vision to uplifting individual people of color in spite of structural racist barriers rather than fighting to do away with racism – can only be described as evidence and admission of moral and political bankruptcy.

[This article first appeared on SociologyLens]

Further Reading:

Michelle Alexander. 2010. The New Jim Crow. Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press. New York, NY.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. 2000. This is a White Country. The Racial Ideology of the Western Nations of the World-System. Sociological Inquiry, 70: 188–214.

Michael K. Brown, Martin Carnoy, Elliott Currie, Troy Duster & David B. Oppenheimer. 2005. Whitewashing Race. The Myth of a Color-Blind Society. University of California Press.

Michael Eric Dyson. 2005. Is Bill Cosby Right. Or has the Black Middle Class lost its Mind? Basic Civitas Books. New York, NY.

Victor M. Rios. 2011. Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys. New York: NYU Press.

5 Responses to “Obama’s Initiative for Young Men of Color & the Rhetoric of Individual Responsibility”

  1. fungalspore March 26, 2014 at 8:13 am #

    Excellent piece of writing. It seems to me that people who manage to get on in life have a tendency to misattribute their success to their attitudes and give insufficient importance to the role of luck. But I am more cynical than you are: I think spending all that money on education is a waste as well. It would be better to give it directly to mothers.

  2. cherylllewellyn March 26, 2014 at 2:00 pm #

    great post, tal!


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