President Obama has made public his “My Brother’s Keeper,” initiative aimed at breaking down the obstacles that deprive and disenfranchise young American men of color of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There are many parallels – spiritually and politically – between Mr. Obama’s work in this field and that of Booker T. Washington, the most influential spokesman for the strategies and programs that influenced both the place and the progress of former slaves and their descendants throughout the 20th century.
In the divine realm, the president’s personal involvement to keep young men of color in school and out of the criminal justice system goes to the core of the program’s name: “And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Promoted as the work that White House advisor Valarie Jarrett says “marks the start of an effort that the president and First Lady Michelle Obama plan to undertake for the rest of their lives,” this new package, politically, comes straight from a source often cited by the president’s conservative detractors. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Mr. Obama, through “My Brother’s Keeper,” has channeled Mr. Booker T. Washington – going back in time to get to a point in the future.
As were Mr. Washington’s signature buzzwords, President Obama encouraged the likes of the young men of color staged behind him last week to turn adversity into advantage, to choose to be better – not bitter, to live, to learn, and to lead with character reinforced with perseverance. The narrative of Mr. Obama’s “Brother’s Keeper” strikes most of the major chords played by Mr. Washington in 1895 at the Atlanta Exposition in the speech that made him famous, “Cast Down Your Bucket Where You Are.” What better way to remind them to reclaim their past so they can move forward and better understand why and how they came to be who they are today, who they can be tomorrow. For example, the violence in America – lynchings – that topped the grisly headlines in Mr. Washington’s day is the same, if not worse, than the interpersonal violence and aggression that mark what Elijah Anderson, a Yale University-based sociologist, attributed to the “Code of the Streets” in his award-winning book by that title, published 15 years ago.
Like Mr. Washington – absent any support from Congress – President Obama put together a coalition involving his administration, corporate and private foundations, and faith-based groups to help these young Americans in pursuit of the American Dream: economic self-sufficiency and advancement into the middle class. Like the man called Booker T, he stressed moral character, education and literacy.
President Obama, who up until this point has wisely dodged being defined by his race – always emphasizing that he is the leader of ALL Americans – took up with his “Brother’s Keeper’s” speech where he left off when he compared himself to Trayvon Martin. Like Mr. Washington, Mr. Obama, with this initiative, combines the nuances of both divisive party politics while dropping race-neutral solutions because this and future generations of K-12 Black and Latino students are a sizable proportion of our future labor force, citizenry and leadership population.
Senator John McCain, in his concession speech after the 2008 election, compared Booker T. Washington to Barack Obama. He said, “A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt’s invitation of Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States.” The young men of color invited to the White House last week by President Obama couldn’t agree more.
Dr. Bill Turner is a Texas-based educator with strong Winston-Salem ties.