My Brother’s Keeper: The Urgency of Now

President Obama is calling his new initiative  to help every young man of color get on the path to success, "My Brother’s Keeper." The reference is to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. After Cain kills his brother Abel, God asks Cain where Abel was and Cain replies “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

This deeply ethical question has sparked philosophical and religious debate through the centuries, but today, here and now, the unequivocal facts on young African American males all point to a "yes" answer.

The Schott Foundation’s recent report, The Urgency of Now, shows that while the overall achievement gap between African-American and white males is narrowing, the rate of progress is glacial:  “At this rate it would take nearly 50 years for Black males to graduate at the same rate as white males,” asserts John H. Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation.

School life in communities of concentrated poverty is typically chaotic, unsafe, and alienating. Obstacles to learning litter the road to student intellectual and social development. If a student can’t read for comprehension by middle school, quiet despair poisons hope and ambition. One wonders whether students drop out or get pushed out.

What happens to minority males who leave school before graduating? The overwhelming majority will struggle to find permanent full-time employment. As a consequence, they will earn much less money over their lifetimes than high school graduates, not to mention college graduates, and most will face a lifetime of financial instability and hardship. According to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, only 7.3 percent of high school dropouts earn more than the median income of all college graduates.

Even more devastating, non-graduates are much more likely to become involved in the criminal justice system. "School-to-prison pipeline” expression is overused, but paints a true picture. According to the Schott Foundation, 60 percent of African American students who leave school before graduation will spend time in prison. Already, more than 2.4 million people are behind bars—a 500 percent national increase in the last 30 years. More that 60 percent of those in prison are people of color, and one out of every eight African-American males is in prison or jail on any given day.

The My Brother’s Keeper Task Force will coordinate federal, state, and local government efforts and work with the private sector and the philanthropic community. One thrust will be a “What Works” online portal to highlight successful programs and practices that improve outcomes for boys and young men of color. The Task Force will also create an infrastructure to support a comprehensive set of effective programs funded through public and private sources.

To reach a tipping point in the struggle to expand opportunity to all will take more than a Task Force, but it is a good start, as is the new initiative’s emphasis on “brother-keeping.”  The next step is to reach out to educators with deep knowledge of effective programs for students of color. In the end, the path to success must be grounded in justice and lead through the schoolhouse door. Without the transformational power of learning, all students—no matter their race or ethnicity—will not reach their potential.