This past February, when President Obama announced his first initiative to address the historical and current effects of racism in the United States, many applauded the effort as a long overdue step in the right direction. However, the program, called My Brother’s Keeper, focuses only on boys and young men of color, ignoring one half of the population.
Said the president,
By focusing on the critical challenges, risk factors and opportunities for boys and young men of color at key life stages, we can improve their long-term outcomes and ability to contribute to the nation’s competitiveness, economic mobility and growth, and civil society. Unlocking their full potential will benefit not only them, but all Americans.
While the drive to benefit the lives of young men of color is wonderful, one wonders why women are again left out of the equation. The advancement of women of color is equally as important as the advancement of young men of color, and must be addressed. This is the main point of an informal coalition of 200 concerned Black men that has formed to forward the interests of their sisters of color. They have begun by writing an open letter to the President.
We always say that gender equality will only fully exist when that other 50 percent of the population—men—become feminists. And so, this moment, when these Black men are stepping up to be feminists and support women’s rights in a way that has never before been seen in the civil rights struggle, is groundbreaking.
Among these 200 Black men are actor/producer Danny Glover, filmmaker Byron Hurt, writer/professor at Vassar Kiese Laymon and 197 other Black men from all walks of life and professions. They share the concern that a mission that Black women will not be left out of the civil rights agenda as has happened in a multitude of social justice initiatives not just in the United States, but around the globe. Ms. sat down with Laymon, one of the key organizers of the coalition, to learn more.
Ms. Blog: For those who do not know, what is the President’s My Brother’s Keeper program?
Kiese Laymon: It’s a $200 million public-private venture and interagency initiative that aims “to improve measurably the expected educational and life outcomes for and address the persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color.”
Why is inclusion of Black girls in the My Brother’s Keeper necessary?
We can’t actually address what the nation’s structural deficiencies have done to Black communities by only addressing half of the people in those communities. Our hope is to persuade policy makers at the federal and state level, and philanthropic organizations, thought leaders and political figures, to direct their attention to the specific vulnerabilities of Black boys and Black girls.
How did the response of 200 concerned Black men come into being?
We’ve been working with a group of committed Black women on this project for a while. The letter is just a small part of the larger project to make sure gender equity is a part of our conceptions of racial justice.
Why do you think Black girls and women are historically ignored and Black men and boys given visibility?
That’s the question. I think it’s important to state here that even though the idea of the endangered Black boy is much more pervasive that the endangered Black girl, our belief is that most of these endangerment narratives leave out the critical role that state-sanctioned white supremacy and patriarchy have played in endangering Black boys. That’s really important to say first. We’re not simply saying give Black girls the kind of attention you’ve been giving Black boys, because that attention hasn’t led to concrete structural change and/or honest reckoning with white supremacy or patriarchy. We’re saying we all have to will ourselves to do whatever we can to address the structural deficiencies that have limited access to healthy choice and second chances for Black boys and Black girls. Black girls and women are ignored because sexism, gendered racism and heteropatriarchy are real. There’s no proof that the nation actually cares about Black girls and women. I think folks make the erroneous assumption that Black women will persist no matter what.
What would you like to see the Obama administration do to empower Black girls as a result of your movement of 200 concerned Black men?
First, we want the the administration to launch data collection on the multiple ways in which Black girls and women are marginalized and suffering. My Brother’s Keeper collects data only on Black boys and men. We also want an expansion of the initiative to include an explicit focus on the structural conditions negatively impacting Black girls and boys. We want the administration to explicitly name, address and redress through concrete policies the deleterious impact of racial bigotry and institutional racism within the U.S., given that it is a condition that negatively impacts the life outcomes of Black youth. We want the administration to end the targeted, Moynihan-esque attention given to “absent fathers” as the primary factor that is destroying Black families, because it implies that present husbands and sons are the solution to the problem of structural conditions in the United States, while erasing the roles of Black women in the lives of Black children. Within our K-12 schools, there is a need for curriculum and other pedagogical tools that specifically address the ways that sexism, patriarchy, heterosexism, white supremacy and rape culture negatively shape the lives of Black children.
How has the administration responded?
They’ve asked to meet with us.
As an American citizen, how can I help?
We urge all concerned folk to first talk with members of their community about the importance of gender equity in racial justice projects. While our letter has gotten the most attention, most of us are doing the work of broadening awareness about gendered racial justice in our own communities. There are mostly groups of women doing this work all across the country. Find those women and ask them how you can be of help. Make sure your local school boards are collecting data on the structural deficiencies impacting the lives of Black girls and boys.
Photo of Kiese Laymon courtesy of Vassar, The Alumnae/i Quarterly.