WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama branded the plight of minority youths in America an “outrage” Thursday as he launched a program to improve the lives of boys in deprived and dangerous inner cities.
In a rare, explicit excursion into racial issues during his presidency, Obama warned that America had become “numb” to statistics showing African-Americans were more likely to lack fathers, drop out of school and go to jail.
“The stubborn fact is that the life chances of the average black or brown child in this country lags behind by almost every measure and is worse for boys and young men,” Obama said at an event in the East Room of the White House.
Obama, coming full circle with a program that recalls his past as a community organizer, appealed to young black men around America, seeking to inspire in a way that once defined his political image but which has been little in evidence as his presidency hit rough waters in recent months.
He said he saw a previous version of himself in young African-American men he met close to his home in the Hyde Park area of Chicago last year — some of whom traveled to Washington to stand behind him as he spoke.
“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,” said Obama, the first African-American president.
“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.”
Obama said the difference between his upbringing and that of many other young minority men was that his childhood in Hawaii was more forgiving than that faced by many young black men in mainland America.
The new “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative is a partnership between government, private corporations and philanthropic organizations, and aides said it is something he will pursue when he leaves office in January 2017.
The Obama plan will draw commitments from various philanthropic foundations worth $200 million over the next five years, the White House said. Businesses and other groups that sign up will target early child development, parenting programs, and those stressing literacy and discipline.
Obama reeled off figures showing that because of their circumstances, African-American and Hispanic youths were more likely to have no father in the house, were more likely to be suspended or expelled from school, or to end up in jail, or be victims of violent crime.
“The worst part is we become numb to these statistics. We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life instead of the outrage that it is.”
Obama was introduced at the event by Christian Champagne, a member of a “Becoming a Man” program in Hyde Park that helps African-American men learn skills needed to stay in school and get to college.
Champagne said his meeting with Obama had changed his outlook on life.
“Meeting the president, and having him tell me that my life now is not different from the way his was, made me realize I have potential too,” he said.
Obama also had a frank message for young African-American men, telling them directly that though government, faith and philanthropic groups could help, they had to do their part.
“It will take courage, but you will have to tune out the naysayers who say if the deck is stacked against you, you might as well just give up or settle into the stereotype.”
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, attending the event as head of his philanthropic organization, said the program could not have a better role model than the president.
“Too many men are dropping out of society. They don’t get an education, they have no future. We have got to do something about it,” he said.
Apart from a speech on race in the 2008 campaign, Obama has been sparing in his references to the issue during his national political career, seeking to avoid being portrayed as simply an African-American president.
His initiative is being billed as part of his new strategy to use his executive powers to enforce political change, given that much of his domestic agenda is being blocked by Republicans in Congress.
Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who is now Chicago’s mayor, came back to the White House for the event, as did former secretary of state Colin Powell.