The Promising Prospects of My Brother's Keeper

On the left and the right, there is agreement that racism and prejudice is one of our deepest national scars. The progress we've made has been enormous. But the effects linger and restrain our future.
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Almost three out of every four young people in California today are what much of the nation might anachronistically call "minorities." It's a reflection of a changing California and a continuation of our nation's great melting pot heritage.

This pot, though, needs some serious stirring.

Black and Latino men and boys rank last on almost every socio-economic metric, from mortality rates to high school diplomas to grade-level reading tests, and on and on. It's not a new phenomenon. It's been this way for decades -- a national scourge with a far too narrow constituency of exasperated parents, overwhelmed teachers and the seemingly few institutions -- private or public -- willing to invest in these kids.

Our politicians put in place "solutions" that seem designed to contain a threat rather than invest in human potential. We suspend black and brown students for minor infractions and lock them up in prison for nonviolent crimes, like marijuana possession, that are dismissed as rites of passage for middle-class white kids who often just get a slap on the wrist.

Black and brown kids pay the price but, ultimately, it's everyone that gets punished.

Dismissing a chronic problem as an unsolvable one is downright un-American. It's like that co-worker who won't try a new, more efficient way of tackling a project because "we've always done it the other way."

Some of us have had enough of it, including President Obama.

On Thursday, the president unveiled a new, multi-million, dollar private-public partnership that is designed to make meaningful investments in young black, Latino and Asian Pacific Islander young men and boys.

Under the plan, called "My Brother's Keeper," a new task force chaired by Cabinet Secretary Broderick Johnson will help coordinate broad efforts in government and the private sector to help make changes in government, corporate America and in communities to better address the needs of young people of color.

As part of the effort, a coalition of a half-dozen foundations, including the California Endowment, will invest millions of dollars over five years to boost literacy, job training and early learning for these kids.

This is the first serious effort to tackle this crisis by any White House. It won't instantly reverse the statistics of which we're all tired, but it will be a start.

One question I've heard over and over about this effort and similar ones we've run at The California Endowment is why we're focusing just on young men and boys of color. What about young white kids living in places like rural Kentucky or Stockton, California?

The answer is that we can't leave anyone behind and we need to fortify efforts to reach every young person who needs help. But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that people of color face engrained challenges born from deep pathologies in our nation's history.

On the left and the right, there is agreement that racism and prejudice is one of our deepest national scars. The progress we've made has been enormous. But the effects linger and restrain our future.

It's not worth a debate about whether we're in a post-racial America. And a litany of statistics won't convince those who believe the only challenge these kids face is the reach of their bootstraps.

I've seen it with my own eyes: kids without hope and destined for a life in prison, or if they're lucky, treatment; they're destined for unemployment, or if they're lucky, underemployment; and they're likely destined for an early death caused by a gun or an otherwise preventable disease.

These are all our sons and brothers and we can no longer ignore or deny this problem. There are too many lives at stake, not to mention the future the nation.

We have to be honest: this first step may get tripped up unless part of our efforts include building broad political support among Democrats and Republicans. We hope everyone gets behind the President on this one.

The only surprise might be what happens to the kids we're trying to save. And if we are successful, the United States will be a more prosperous, safer and better place.

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