Obama Proves He's His 'Brother's Keeper'

President Relates to African-Americans with New Initiative

Stacy M. Brown | 2/28/2014, 7:53 p.m.
President Barack Obama has finally displayed some swagger.
Christian Champagne, 18, a senior at Hyde Park Career Academy in Chicago, introduces President Obama during the launch of Obama's "My Brother's Keeper" initiative in the East Room of the White House on Thursday, Feb. 27. Photo by Shevry Lassiter

President Barack Obama has finally displayed some swagger.

After five years in the Oval Office and facing increasing skepticism from many of the 93 percent of black voters who helped him become the first African-American president, Obama on Thursday stood as a peer to that particular constituency.

During an emotional announcement at the White House, the president unveiled a new $200 million, five-year initiative designed to help young African-American men.

The initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper,” seeks to make sure that every young person of color who’s willing to work hard and lift themselves up has an opportunity to get ahead and reach their full potential.

Relating to the plight of many young blacks, Obama spoke of growing up without a father and how, as a teenager, he didn’t care much for school and he even indulged in drug use.

“I didn’t have a dad in the house and I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time,” Obama said in front of a throng of of reporters and invited guests. “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.”

The president’s speech proved as powerful as his initiative and many said it finally provided African-Americans tangible evidence that Obama is deserving of role model status.

“This is what we’ve been waiting for,” said Amanda Russell, 37, of Temple Hills, Md., a black waitress and single mother of three young boys. “When [Obama] was first elected, I thought about how seeing this black man in that position could provide some sort of inspiration for them because it is hard raising children on your own. But I didn’t feel like I had much to point to with Obama, until now because he came off finally as one of us and not aloof.”

Black journalist LZ Granderson, 41, who writes for CNN and ESPN, said Obama is in a precarious position when dealing with black constituents.

“When you’re coming in as the first African-American president, there’s a sort of expectation that you’re going to do things to help your community,” said Granderson, 41. “And he’s been criticized for not doing that and it’s tricky for him, because he doesn’t want to be perceived as the president of black people. He wants to be perceived as the president of the United States.”

The president said he deplored America’s numbness to the plight of young black men, whom he said face much higher odds of succeeding than whites.

He said the idea for the new initiative occurred to him after a black unarmed Florida teenager, Trayvon Martin, was fatally shot in 2012 by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman.

In unveiling the initiative, Obama listed several statistics to demonstrate the odds facing black youth, including the prevalence of school suspensions, literacy problems, and the fact that jails and prisons are filled mostly with African-Americans.