Reality, not rhetoric, needed to achieve My Brother’s Keeper’s educational goals

“Statistics on the conditions of minority boys and young men in the United States are grim and familiar,” writes Fredrick C. Harris in a new Governance Studies paper, “The challenges of My Brother’s Keeper.”  A recent demographic analysis estimates that approximately 1.5 million black men, in particular, are “missing” or have “disappeared” from communities across the country. These staggering facts present a unique set of challenges for members of this demographic who are seeking education and who are supporting their children as they grow and learn.

On February 27, 2014, President Barack Obama unveiled the White House initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, with the purpose of combating the difficult social conditions facing minority boys and young men in the United States. In Harris’ new paper, he lauds many of the goals of My Brother’s Keeper while also suggesting that it may fall short of its objectives given its misplaced emphasis on character building.

Harris writes on the “missing” men that these males have died prematurely either through disease or murder or they have been locked away in jails and prisons. He states, “Their absence in society leaves communities void of potential spouses, partners, fathers, sons, uncles, cousins, family surrogates, workers, and engaged citizens that make up the fabric of economically stable and socially viable communities.”

My Brother’s Keeper and the educational system

In the educational system, these statistics means that from a very young age, many in this demographic face severe difficulty and hardship from which it is difficult to recover. According to Harris, minority boys and young men in the United States are:

  • Less likely to learn to read and perform math at an early age
  • More likely to be punished and expelled from school than other students
  • Less likely to graduate from high school
  • More likely to be unemployed and underemployed

Harris also points out what could be gained by closing this educational gap. There is a large economic burden placed on communities of color and the nation by these missing men and the barriers they face. The White House estimates that by closing the educational attainment gap between non-Hispanic white men and men of color of working age (25-64), men of color would earn as much as $170 billion more annually, the average weekly earnings of all workers would increase by 3.6 percent, GDP would expand by 1.8 percent, and the share of men of color who have a bachelor’s degree or above would double.

Changing the negative public discourse

Due to these findings, Harris urges the narrative surrounding these problems to change. He argues for “challenging some misconceptions about the shortcomings of black men, which have become a part of the negative public discourse.” In his paper, Harris points to President Obama’s speeches. He discusses the speech at the initiative’s unveiling where the president positioned himself as Mentor-in-Chief as well as his major speech on Father’s Day in which Obama (then a candidate for Democratic Party nomination) singled out black fathers failing to raise their children.

The rhetoric surrounding a lack of responsibility reinforces existing stereotypes about black men, particularly as fathers, and does not match the reality. As Harris notes, previous studies have shown that “black fathers not only are active in the lives of their children but their engagement is equal to or is greater than white and Latino fathers.”

Policy recommendations to address challenges of My Brother’s Keeper

Beyond the requisite narrative shift, Harris makes several policy recommendations. He calls for supporting poor and working-class unmarried parents lacking the financial resources affluent families generally provide for their children. He also points to the fact that the state and local level are areas ripest for policy change; therefore we should invigorate the dormant state commissions on the status of black males and collaborate with those groups that are already engaged.

In terms of what My Brother’s Keeper has already achieved, Harris explains that the initiative is using executive action to help all underachieving students meet milestones at various stages of their lives. For instance, “the Department of Education and the Justice Department are focusing existing resources to address the education gap and criminal justice reform through demonstration projects, targeted funding, grant-making, and request for budget increases for expanding programs in early education, secondary education, and in correctional facilities.”

Harris does applaud the internships, mentoring programs, and apprenticeships that are part of My Brother’s Keeper, yet only those fortunate enough to be part of the initiative will reap the benefits of such support. “The incremental policy changes, program demonstrations, and requests for additional funding for existing government programs merely tweak around the edges of what has been a long-standing crisis that has only grown over the decades.”

For education policy, Harris urges an aggressive approach to dismantling structural barriers. He promotes:

  • Nurturing the development of higher-status social networks—which are currently weak in poor and working-class communities of color—that are important in acquiring future educational and job opportunities.
  • Increasing educational opportunities for prisoners and ex-offenders and breaking down barriers that prevent ex-offenders from successfully obtaining employment.
  • Expanding educational opportunities for prisoners and ex-offenders. The Obama administration has proposed a modest program called “Second Chances Pell Pilot,” with an aim to restore Pell grant eligibility to federal and state prisoners. Harris notes studies have shown that inmates who received education while incarcerated have a 13 percent greater chance of becoming employed after release from jail.

Harris concludes that if My Brother’s Keeper’s modest targeted investments remain the same, existing laws and practices that perpetuate the conditions that poor and working-class minority youth face will end up counteracting the good works that the initiative is trying to accomplish.

Read the full paper, “The challenges of My Brother’s Keeper,” by Fredrick C. Harris to learn more about issues beyond education that the initiative aims to address.