6 Ways the White House Can Help Truly Keep Our Brothers

By Imara Jones Oct 22, 2014

Editor’s note: Our series "Life Cycles of Inequity" explores the ways in which inequity impacts the lives of black men. Each month, we focus on a life stage or event in which that impact has been shown to be particularly profound. In the video above, Colorlines economic justice columnist Imara Jones explains how black men have been cut out of economic opportunity initiatives for more than a century.

After nearly six years of de facto silence on race, the White House this year swung into the harsh world that men of color inhabit with the unveiling of its "My Brother’s Keeper" initiative.

When compared to their white peers, black men are nearly half as likely to graduate from high school; earn $6 an hour less in the labor market; are three times as likely to live in poverty and 10 times as likely to have been a victim of homicide–not to mention off-the-charts incarceration rates. This depressing data has been well documented for over a generation and is not in dispute. To describe the totality of what’s going on, Marian Wright-Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund drops the world "school" and simply dubs it "the cradle-to-prison pipeline."

As the president launched "My Brother’s Keeper" in February, he lamented that the country had become "numb to these statistics" and that all too many Americans "take them as the norm." He described the White House initiative as having potential to give young men of color "a boundless sense of possibility."

Though the initiative has since drawn noticeable criticism–for, among other things, its paltry pledge of $200 million in mostly private resources and overlooking black women–the unveiling nonetheless raised hopes that the country was arriving at a turning point. Veteran Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson called it "the kind of targeted public-private initiative that might actually do some good, even without tons of new federal money thrown in."

Those hopes were strained severely in May, when the White House published My Brother’s Keepers’ six policy recommendations.

Despite the fact that the report places poverty at the top of issues facing young men of color, not one of the six policy recommendations in the document directly addresses poverty itself. Surprisingly, the first proposal for addressing the vast and deep inequities confronted by men of color is "entering school ready to learn." That’s followed by "reading at grade level by third grade." True, these steps are important and worthy, but the colossal inequity faced by black men is systemic and widespread, not individual and personal. Systemic problems require systematic remedies.

The hopeful news is that public policy can begin to address the difficulties with which men of color contend without massive new funding. The president can use executive action to reform several mistaken policies and procedures that stack the deck unfavorably for black men. Here are six ideas that didn’t make it into the My Brother’s Keeper recommendations. They would be a good place for the president to start:

1. Make Work Pay for Single Men

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which Congress created in the 1970s and has gradually expanded over the years, is designed to ensure that low-wage workers can make ends meet. By dramatically cutting the taxes owed by low-income households, it manages to keep 10 million people out of poverty.

But the EITC is currently designed to primarily help custodial parents. According to the White House, a childless person working full time and earning minimum wage is eligible only for up to $25 a year in EITC help, and workers under 25 years old are excluded altogether. As the Obama administration has documented, these rules significantly limit the program’s impact among both black and Latino men. 

President Obama has already urged Congress to expand EITC. As with other issues where Congress has refused to budge–immigration, LGBT civil rights and cybersecurity, among them–the White House could explore ways to unilaterally enlarge and retool the EITC program while it waits for Congress to act.

2. Focus Job Training Programs on Black and Latino Men

One way to help remedy the job-skills gap created by incarceration and educational barriers is to focus existing job training programs on black and Latino men.

Currently the federal government spends $18 billion a year on job training. As a report by Congress’ General Accounting Office details, many of the nearly 50 job training initiatives are scattered across nine governmental departments, with most of the money sent to the states in the form of grants to fund uncoordinated efforts at the local level.

One way to better organize this patchwork of programs is to target them on those who need help the most. Some programs, such as those that concentrate on workers with disabilities and on Native American workers, already focus their efforts. But President Obama could issue an executive order asking that priority be given to efforts that are directed at black and Latino men.

3. Focus Federal Grants on Real Anti-Crime Strategies

As the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University points out, crime is committed by a handful of people: just five people out every 100 commit violent crimes. But policies such as "stop-and-frisk" can sweep up nearly 80 out of every 100 young black men in neighborhood-wide dragnets. Due to these stops, young black men who have not committed serious crimes rack up fees and minor citations for things like riding a bicycle on a sidewalk, which in turn expose them to greater risk for jail time in future, random stops.

But a further problem with these "broken window" policing strategies is that they do little to end the actual violent crime epidemic in communities of color. Two proven approaches to reducing crime are direct, peer-led interventions in street violence and policies that pursue the small number of people who are responsible for violent crime, rather than target entire communities. The My Brother’s Keeper report does endorse these approaches and one recommendation calls broadly for their growth. But to get specific, the federal government could spur or even mandate both approaches through restrictions on the way local police departments use grant money.

4. Break the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Disproportionately applied school discipline is a key driver for both high levels of unemployment and incarceration for black and Latino men. As I’ve written before, students who are suspended are up to five times less likely to graduate.

Here again, the My Brother’s Keeper report identifies the problem and calls for an end to suspensions and expulsions in the early educational years. But there’s a way for the administration to actually achieve that goal. Each year the Department of Education collects detailed information about racial disparities in school discipline. This existing data could be used by the government to compel each of the thousands of schools who receive federal education funds create an action plan and a timetable to eliminate racial disparities in school discipline.

5. Expand Public School Academies for Black Boys

According to a report by the education non-profit ETS, competitive same-sex academies can increase the chances of black boys graduating high school by 60 percent; putting the attainment of high school diplomas on a par with those for white boys. Each year President Obama’s Education Department hands out billions of dollars in grants to the nation’s poorest schools, often with strings attached, to steer school districts to policies that it believes to work. These grants are a potential tool to expand public school opportunities for black boys and scale up now-localized, pilot schools that are already underway.

6. Transform Prisons Into Education Centers

Six out of 10 of the 2.3 million people behind bars are men of color. Lack of educational opportunity is one important reason for why they’re in the criminal justice system: According to the National Education Association, eight of 10 of those behind bars did not finish high school.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a program to fund associate and bachelor degrees in New York’s prisons. The governor points out that it costs $60,000 to incarcerate someone but only $5,000 a year to educate each prisoner, all while "giving a real shot at a second lease on life." Those who earn degrees in prison are far less likely to come back. The federal government could drive a similar effort on a national scale. And given the fact that the president runs all of the federal government’s prisons, President Obama could begin laying the groundwork right away.