WASHINGTON — After addressing the issue of race sparingly in his first term, President Obama on Thursday unveiled an initiative explicitly aimed at a group he says demands urgent attention — black and Latino young men.
Obama announced a program called My Brother's Keeper and ordered the federal government to focus resources on programs that had been proven to help minority young men stay out of trouble, succeed in school and land good jobs.
"So often, the issues facing boys and young men of color get caught up in long-running ideological arguments — about race and class and crime and poverty, the role of government, partisan politics," the president said in a packed White House East Room. "But the urgency of the situation requires us to move past some of those old arguments and focus on getting something done and focusing on what works. Doesn't mean the arguments are unimportant; it just means that they can't paralyze us."
The initiative was shaped in part by two meetings Obama had with a chapter of the Chicago-based group Becoming a Man, which left a deep impression on the president and the group's young African American men. The last time they saw the president, they presented him with a Father's Day card in the Oval Office, leaving him speechless.
Obama was introduced by Christian Champagne, an 18-year-old junior at Hyde Park Academy High School, who said he was coasting along with B's and C's when he listened to the president talk about his own struggles growing up without a father at home. Now Champagne said he earns A's and B's and plans to go to college.
"I felt the flame in me," he said in an interview. "I wanted to be more."
The effort will resemble others in Obama's second-term agenda, as it relies on existing resources, recruits private-sector participation and depends not at all on the approval of Congress. He's calling on prominent men of color — Colin Powell and Magic Johnson are already on board — to bring police, business and philanthropic leaders to the cause.
But the initiative is unique for Obama in that it targets beneficiaries specifically by race, a departure for the first African American president, who typically talks about disadvantages in economic terms rather than racial ones.
The announcement comes almost exactly two years after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the black Florida teenager whose death provoked some of the president's most personal remarks on race and prodded him to think about a broad-based approach to the difficulties such men face. "If I had a son," Obama said then, "he'd look like Trayvon." Martin's parents were at Thursday's White House event.
Last year, Obama had his first meeting with the boys of the Becoming a Man mentoring program at Hyde Park Academy High School, about a mile from his South Side Chicago home, a fresh reminder of his own personal connection to the precarious fortunes of young black men in America.
"He was really struck by the fact that, if he had grown up in Chicago, he might have not had the same opportunities he had," said Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor and close Obama family friend.
Around that time, Obama directed his staff to start looking at how to help African American boys in ways that didn't involve any grand new federal programs.
The result is a public-private partnership designed to better focus existing government funds and to leverage private investment. The official announcement, originally scheduled for two weeks ago, was delayed by a snowstorm.
Obama on Thursday signed a presidential memorandum setting up a task force to figure out which public and private efforts are working and how to expand upon them. The task force will recommend ways to create incentives for state and local governments and the private sector to invest in the most effective programs.
Several foundation leaders joined Obama to announce plans to invest at least $200 million over the next five years in education, parenting, criminal justice and job programs.
The president decided to address such problems in terms of race for practical reasons, advisors say. "He feels that we should have an honest conversation, and that, if we're willing to do that, it will lead to progress," Jarrett said.
Obama only occasionally spoke about racial issues in his first term. After his reelection in 2012, he began to display a new openness to discussing the subject, speaking overseas about the U.S. history of slavery and discussing his own experiences as a black man after the Trayvon Martin killing.
With Thursday's announcement, Obama addressed the subject in the form of policy. Black leaders welcomed the explicit talk, even if some were disappointed to see Obama admit he couldn't set things right on a grander scale.
"The presumption that a private-public partnership could actually address the depths of the social misery confronting this population is, at best, misguided," said Eddie Glaude, head of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. "That's not to say it's not needed. But it's the equivalent of a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound."
"We have babies who are starving, and families who can't keep roofs over their heads, and workers who can't find jobs, and our conception of government is so anemic that we can't muster the resources to respond," Glaude said.
Like so much of Obama's agenda, the plans for My Brother's Keeper are a function of necessity. Congress isn't approving much of anything Obama proposes, so he must work with available resources.
The impact may be narrow, aides acknowledge, but it's real.
The president has seen the results in his interaction with the Becoming a Man group from Hyde Park Academy High School.
"I think the president's getting as much out of this as they are," said Anthony Ramirez-Di Vittorio, a clinical social worker at the Youth Guidance nonprofit that runs the program, which he founded. "This is not a political moment. This is a moment of fatherliness."
A year ago, Obama sat down with a dozen young men for their weekly "check-in circle" at their campus. Last summer, he invited them to his own circle — the Oval Office.
"It has definitely given me motivation," said Kerron Turner, a 19-year-old senior. "Having the president there, talking to you … it makes you want to put on your A-game."