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President Obama launched a new government partnership with businesses and philanthropic groups on Thursday aimed at keeping high-risk young men of color on the right path.
Obama called it a “moral issue” for the country to help minority youth gain the education and skills they need to succeed as adults and to stay out of jail.
“It doesn’t take that much, but it takes more than we are doing now,” Obama said. “And that’s what My Brother’s Keeper is about.”
As part of the program, Obama wants to adopt best practices from communities throughout the country where businesses and foundations are already working together to mentor young minority men.
In support of the program, the Obama administration recruited several philanthropic groups — including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Ford Foundation and The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation — to pledge at least $200 million over the next five years to develop programs on early childhood development, parenting, school discipline reform and other critical areas.
Obama noted that in the first three years of life a child born into a low-income family typically hears 30 million fewer words than a child of a well-off family.
He also cited statistics that show a student who can’t read at grade level by third grade is four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who does read proficiently by that time. Children living in poverty are 13 times less likely to graduate on time than their wealthier peers.
The president took aim at zero-tolerance policies, the practice of automatically suspending students for certain infractions. The administration last month recommended that schools discontinue the practice.
Schools are twice as likely to suspend a Hispanic student and four times more likely to suspend an African-American student than they are white students. Students that are suspended even once before the ninth grade are twice as likely to drop out.
“There are ways to modify bad behavior that leads to good behavior,” Obama said. “We can make classrooms good places for learning for everybody without jeopardizing a child’s future.”
The foundations have agreed to work with Obama’s Cabinet secretary, Broderick Johnson, over the next 90 days to assess the effectiveness of existing public and private efforts and determine how the federal government can change its policies to support those efforts.
The announcement comes in the same week as the two-year anniversary of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager whose 2012 slaying in Florida spurred Obama to speak in personal terms about race.
Trayvon’s parents, as well as the parents of 17-year-old Jordan Davis, an unarmed black teen who was killed in 2012 in Jacksonville, were among those invited to the White House for the announcement.
Obama also invited young men from a Chicago-based group called Becoming a Man, which he held up as group that his administration can learn from as it develops the initiative.
He recalled telling them about the bad choices he made, including “getting high” and sometimes taking school less seriously than he should have.
“I could see myself in these young men,” Obama said. “The only difference was I grew up in an environment that was a little more forgiving.”
Obama has faced periodic criticism during his presidency from prominent African Americans — including scholar Cornel West and radio host Tavis Smiley — who have charged that he has spent little political capital or energy focusing on the plight of poor minority communities.
But in recent weeks, the Obama administration won praise for focusing on some issues that are of great concern in minority communities.
Attorney General Eric Holder called on states this month to repeal laws that strip felons of the right to vote, a penalty imposed on nearly one in 13 African Americans.
Holder is also pushing Congress to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders and has sued Texas and North Carolina to overturn voter-identification laws that opponents say are more likely to keep minorities and the poor from voting.
On Thursday, Obama received praised from African-American lawmakers and activists for launching the initiative.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said the program could “give our young black men a fighting chance.”
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