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Am I Not Also My Sister's Keeper?

The recent announcement that 60 of the nation's largest school districts are joining President Obama's initiative to improve the educational futures of young African-American and Hispanic boys is both welcome and troubling.
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The recent announcement that 60 of the nation's largest school districts are joining President Obama's initiative to improve the educational futures of young African-American and Hispanic boys is both welcome and troubling. Let me explain.

The initiative, called My Brother's Keeper, marks the President's first effort to focus attention on the challenges facing communities of color. Those challenges are legion, especially in the wake of the crash of 2008 and the ensuing Great Recession. In 2009, after the crash wiped out the value of people's houses and 401(k) accounts, unmarried women's median net worth looked like this:

African American women: $100
Latinas: $120
White women: $41,500

Similarly shocking disparities exist in median net worth for all households (married and unmarried):

African American households: $6,081
Latino/Hispanic households: $6,668
White households: $119,152

Clearly, it is past time to refocus the nation's attention on our deep racial disparities in housing, economic well-being, education and health care. But it turns out that the MBK initiative is only for boys and young men of color. That's a problem for anyone who cares about gender and racial justice. As Kimberle Crenshaw (who coined the term intersectionality) wrote last week in the New York Times, MBK's male-only focus "amounts to an abandonment of women of color, who have been among [the President's] most loyal supporters." Crenshaw continued:

Gender exclusivity isn't new, but it hasn't been so starkly articulated as public policy in generations. It arises from the common belief that black men are exceptionally endangered by racism, occupying the bottom of every metric: especially school performance, workforce participation and involvement with the criminal justice system. Black women are better off, the argument goes, and are thus less in need of targeted efforts to improve their lives. The White House is not the author of this myth, but is now its most influential promoter.

The evidence supporting these claims is often illogical, selective or just plain wrong. In February, when Mr. Obama announced the initiative -- which is principally financed by philanthropic foundations, and did not require federal appropriations -- he noted that boys who grew up without a father were more likely to be poor. More likely than whom? Certainly not their sisters, who are growing up in the same households, attending the same underfunded schools and living in the same neighborhoods.

Crenshaw is by no means alone. In May, over 200 African-American men wrote in an open letter to the President, that it's wrong to address the challenges facing males of color without integrating a comparable focus on the complex lives of girls and women in the same communities.

They noted:

If the denunciation of male privilege, sexism and rape culture is not at the center of our quest for racial justice, then we have endorsed a position of benign neglect towards the challenges that girls and women face that undermine their well-being and the well-being of the community as a whole.

Shortly thereafter, some 1,500 women of color issued another open letter, similarly calling for a gender-inclusive MBK. The women said:

Those who have justified the exclusive gender focus of MBK and the related Boys and Men of Color Executive Alliance (BMOC) often remind us that male youth of color are like the miner's canary: their plight warns us that something is wrong in the mine. ... Yet male-exclusive initiatives seem to lose sight of the implications of the canary's distress: it is not a signal that only male canaries are suffering. It makes no sense to equip the canary with a mentor, a gas mask or some other individual-level support while leaving the mine as it is and expecting the females to fend for themselves. If the air is toxic, it is toxic for everyone forced to breathe it.

Despite all the protests and pleas, the White House refuses to budge. Aides to the President are insisting that the boys-only focus of MBK is evidence-based, data-driven, all about the "metrics." Yet, as Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women's Policy Studies, has

According to the MBK task force report itself, there is very little evidence that any programs for boys of color work, and, of course to exclude girls, the evidence would have to prove that those that do work do not work as well for boys when girls of color are included. Although the White House claims the MBK initiative is evidence-based, the report presents no evidence to justify excluding girls and young women of color from the initiative. Boys are rarely compared with girls in the report and no programs are identified as being successful for boys alone. In other words, the inference that boys of color need this investment of resources more than their female counterparts has yet to be substantiated by the MBK initiative.

In fact, girls of color consistently come out on the bottom of data tracking the wellbeing of females. For example:

  • Health: Black women and girls continue to have the highest rates of HIV among all females in the U.S., and are more likely to die of breast cancer -- despite a lower overall incidence -- in part because they lack access to health care. Latinas have the highest rate of cervical cancer, followed by Black women who have the highest death rates from the disease. A woman in Lebanon today has a much higher chance of surviving childbirth than does a Black woman in this country.
  • Exposure to Violence: No woman or girl in the U.S. today is more likely to be murdered than one who is Black. Forty-six percent of Alaska Native and Native American women, 44 percent of Black women, 37 percent of Latinas, and 20 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander women experience intimate partner violence -- which includes physical attack, stalking and rape -- during their lifetimes.
  • Criminal Justice: Black women are incarcerated at a rate 2.8 times that of white women, even though the latters' rate has been rising in recent years. The incarceration rate for Latinas rose 23.3 percent from 2000 to 2009.
  • Education: Graduation rates for girls of color lag far behind their white peers. Only 51 percent of young Native American women graduate on time. The suspension rate of Black girls is higher than that of most boys, and higher than that of white, Asian and Latina girls combined.
  • Economic Security: Twenty-nine percent of white women heads of households with children live in poverty, compared to 43 percent of African-American women and 46 percent of Latinas. Single Black and Hispanic women have one penny of wealth for every dollar of wealth owned by their male counterparts and a fraction of a penny for every dollar of wealth owned by single white women.

So, what on earth are White House staffers thinking, when they exclude girls and young women of color from the President's signature racial justice initiative? And what must the President's Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill -- who are in a tough fight to retain control of the U.S. Senate -- be thinking about MBK's disrespect for precisely the voting demographic that they badly need to engage and mobilize this November?

Some in the White House have suggested a separate program for girls -- but that woefully misses the point. First, how great a leap can it be to recall that segregation doesn't lead to equality? When the President derides "Mad Men" attitudes -- in which men are in charge and women are second-class citizens -- as wrong for women, surely he means they're wrong for women of color as well as white women. As importantly, where would LGBTQIA youth of color (lesbian, gay, bi, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual) fit in a binary, sex-segregated initiative? No, MBK needs to be realigned toward inclusion.

It may be news to President Obama, but the girls and young women of color who live in those 60 school districts have aspirations, fears, hopes and dreams. They deserve to have their President care as much about them as he does about their brothers, fathers and uncles.

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