Let’s agree that we agree
President Obama introduced his “Brother’s Keeper” initiative in Chicago last month. It was a speech every American should listen to intently. I do wish he’d made the speech his first month in office but now that he has made it we must decide whether we’ll accept his challenge. To my ears it was an uncommonly frank and realistic description of problems that affect all young people but statistically affect young Black and Hispanic men disproportionately. To me it was also uncommon because the president plainly said that government was powerless to fix the problems and he made no proposal for any new spending initiative. Instead, he stated the problems as he saw them and his view of the solutions.
He challenged the nation to step up and do what is necessary to begin reversing the brutal cycle of under-achievement, poverty and dependency. He challenged individuals and organizations to join together to break the cycle of neglect, low expectations, bad decisions, and poverty. He was careful to emphasize how the problems statistically impact these groups more than others but in fact anyone, from any background will be equally disadvantaged by the five factors he laid out. I suspect there is room for debating whether all his items are distinct or whether they are all causes rather than symptoms. As interesting as those debates might be, there is little or nothing to be gained from holding them. The president spoke clearly and openly about five specific "turning points" in a child’s life that are key opportunities for making a difference:
1. Early Childhood Education: A child in a low income family hears some 30 million fewer words in its first three years than a child in an affluent family.
2. Reading: A child that cannot read by fourth grade is severely handicapped for the remainder of school and is unlikely to graduate
3. Behavior problems in school: A child with even one suspension for bad behavior is much less likely to finish school
4. Trouble with the law: Young Black and Hispanic men are much more likely to get into trouble with the law and are seldom finish high school
5. Young people from low income households being disconnected from society: Young people need mentors, fathers who hang around, and good community influences to prevent them from making bad decisions
Before introducing these points, the president said that nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who is active in this son’s life. He said that parents must turn off the TV and parent. [I have long held that "parent" is a verb, not just a noun or a title.] He said the community must help with mentoring, opportunities, and messages of faith. He said fathers need to stick around and society needs to remove barriers to marriage. He noted that this was not something that government could do or even be a significant participant in bringing about. He acknowledged that such efforts were already being sponsored by people of good faith from all political views and that it was not necessary to insist that every major problem with society be addressed before getting to work fixing these specific problems. After listing the points he admonished the young audience to step up and take on their own responsibilities, reject the stereotypes, and ignore the advice of nay-sayers. He told them it was up to them to set goals and work to achieve them. He told them frankly that nobody was going to give them anything, that there would be competition, and it was essential that they make good choices in life.
Surely, this is at least an architecture if not a blueprint for us. The president was unequivocal:
— We know the predictors of failure.
— We must take a clear eyed look at solutions. We must seek solutions that evidence shows are producing results because there is no time and no money for any others. If something isn’t working, we should stop doing it.
— This is not something government can or should do. It’s up to the parents, the community, and particularly up to the kids themselves.
I hope this non-partisan, non-accusatory, non-judgmental speech will become an impetus for those among us that the president called “of good will” to put down the hateful and accusatory rhetoric we hear so much and stop blaming one another because these symptoms represent our collective failure to put children on the right path. Frankly, it is not the kind of speech I am accustomed to hearing from this president and it is surely not the tone or content I am accustomed to hearing from some of his supporters. That said, if I can presume he speaks for most liberals and Democrats, then I can say with conviction there is near universal agreement on the significance these symptoms and with his framework for solutions. The president noted organizations that can and should do this work already exist in our communities and he challenged each of us to seek them out and contribute our time and talents to helping and our collective voices to encouraging parents and children to make good choices and stop listening to those who tell them they can’t succeed. Are we up to his challenge?