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My Brother’s Keeper Is Great, But What About the Girls?

Critics say the president’s new program to help young black men unfairly excludes black girls who, by many measures, experience the same problems.

Girls are more likely to live in poverty and earn lower wages and less likely to graduate with degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
Girls are more likely to live in poverty and earn lower wages and less likely to graduate with degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
(David Kidd)
When President Obama unveiled a campaign last year to help young men and boys of color, it won support from both the left and the right. Joe Jones, who runs the Baltimore-based nonprofit Center for Urban Families, saw the bipartisan buy-in firsthand while attending a White House kickoff event. “There was one iconic moment that let me know we were onto something,” Jones says, “because we had Al Sharpton and Bill O’Reilly in the same room.” Not only did civil rights leaders join with conservative pundits in lauding the initiative, but more than 200 mayors have since committed to making My Brother’s Keeper a part of local policy.

That’s great, some critics have said, but what about girls?

In some circles, there’s tempered enthusiasm for a federal campaign that excludes an entire gender. “If black women don’t have any wealth, then there’s no way their sons are going to have access to wealth,” says Rachel Gilmer, an associate director at the African American Policy Forum, a think tank in New York. In fact, across many of the measures the White House used as justification for focusing on black males, she says, “you’d need a microscope to see the difference between how black boys and black girls are doing.”

If the White House had relied on data to drive policy, My Brother’s Keeper should have included both genders, said a February report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), another think tank. The institute reviewed 114 data-based assertions made in a White House interim report on My Brother’s Keeper and found that only nine of them highlighted cases in which black boys were worse off than black girls. Most of the data actually showed that communities of color, regardless of gender, fare worse than white communities.

The analysis wouldn’t be so damning except that Obama and his staff have proudly declared that My Brother’s Keeper is based on a dispassionate review of the evidence. In reality, federal officials chose to disregard the evidence out of political expedience, says Heidi Hartmann, who heads the IWPR. She argues that My Brother’s Keeper “hits the political sweet spot” by placating some minority advocates as well as conservatives who perceive black boys as “dangerous.” My Brother’s Keeper “doesn’t say the problem is racism [or that] the problem is communitywide,” Hartmann says. “This program says the problem is the black boys and we are going to fix them.”

Critics of the White House initiative acknowledge that there are legitimate examples of black boys experiencing problems to a greater extent than girls. They’re more likely to be the victims of a homicide. They score worse in reading proficiency as fourth-graders. They’re more likely to drop out of high school. And they’re less likely to enroll in or complete higher education.

But in many cases the achievement gap between boys and girls is reversed. As fourth-graders, girls score worse in math proficiency. Across all racial groups, girls are more likely to live in poverty. Young women between the ages of 18 and 24 are less likely to graduate with degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. They’re more likely to earn lower wages than men. They also tend to experience higher rates of obesity.

So far, My Brother’s Keeper has raised almost $500 million in funding from businesses and foundations. Last month, Obama announced the formation of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, a standalone nonprofit intended to continue the president’s policy campaign after he has left office. 

President Obama hosts a lunch with "My Brother's Keeper" mentees at the White House. (AP/Evan Vucci)

The policy is already making an impact in local programs. Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, in her first month in office this January, announced an all-boys public high school for racial minorities. She’ll also invest $20 million in public and private funding for Empowering Males of Color, the D.C. spinoff of My Brother’s Keeper, which will go toward improving literacy and academic achievement among boys of color in schools. A survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors last year showed that other large cities have already created similar programming around the policy.

In response to criticism, the White House released a report last fall that discussed ways in which the Obama administration has helped women and girls of color over the years, mostly through race- and gender-neutral initiatives, such as the Affordable Care Act and First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. The White House committed to a working group and a listening tour focused on the challenges faced by young women and girls of color. 

But Hartmann says that’s not enough. My Brother’s Keeper should be rebranded to serve all youth of color. “They live in the same families,” Hartmann says. “They go to the same schools, and they have the same problems.” 

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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