Harnessing the Promise: How to Accelerate the Potential of the White House “My Brother’s Keeper” Initiative

Brian Smedley, Jermane Bond

Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies


Relative to their white peers, boys and men of color face deeply inequitable life circumstances and outcomes, as measured by disparities across a range of sectors, such as education, employment, health and reproductive health, and juvenile and criminal justice involvement. Today President Obama announced the Task Force Report for the White House “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, which aims to build public- and private-sector partnerships to improve life opportunities for boys and men of color. This represents an historic and vitally important opportunity to mobilize stakeholders and take action to embrace our young men – but its success hinges on our collective ability to understand how we as a nation have responded to this population, and how we address their needs going forward.

A host of historic and contemporary factors contribute to inequitable opportunities for boys and men of color, resulting in adverse health behaviors, constrained access to resources, and shortened life expectancy. Persistent residential segregation—an enduring legacy of de jure and de facto Jim Crow policies and practices that are reinforced by current housing discrimination and housing policies—concentrates these young men in high-poverty communities, where there are few jobs and few role models that present boys with reasons for optimism about their lives.

Residential segregation also exposes boys and men of color to high levels of crime, as well as domestic and neighborhood violence, which inhibits the development of healthy relationships, successful coping, and conflict-resolution skills. Deepening school segregation consigns a disproportionate share of boys of color to failing school systems that struggle to prepare youth for educational excellence and advancement. In contrast, many of these schools employ policies and practices that increase the likelihood of school dropout (e.g., through draconian school disciplinary policies) and non-persistence.

And many boys and men of color, deprived of opportunities for full participation in the economic and political life of their communities, find themselves seeking income through the underground economy, thinking only in terms of short-term needs, and starting families with partners with whom they are poorly prepared to raise children.

To address limited opportunities for men of color, in 2005 the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies launched the Dellums Commission to analyze obstacles commonly confronted by young men of color, and to identify effective policies and practices that could help them enjoy a more successful path in life. The Commission was chaired by former Oakland Mayor Ronald V. Dellums, a social worker by training who served with distinction as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1971 to 1998. The other members of the Commission included a diverse group of state legislators, judges, educators, human rights activists, corporate executives, religious leaders, and representatives from the African-American, Latino, American-Indian, and Asian-American communities.

The Commission sought to address actionable solutions, directing their attention on a new way forward, beyond diagnosis, organizing ideas and policies to form an urgent agenda. They commissioned a series of studies by leading experts to identify national, state, and local policies in the areas of health and mental health services, juvenile justice and criminal justice, and family support and child welfare. The result of these studies was a comprehensive policy agenda and a powerful group of recommendations designed to ignite reforms that would enhance the well-being of communities of color and demonstrate that government, business, communities, and individuals can work together to eliminate barriers faced by boys and men of color.

Building on the success of the Dellums Commission, we must re-ignite our efforts to implement effective policy change by building coalitions that will unite labor, industry, science, public health, religious leaders, philanthropists, foundations, and elected officials in a consortium to improve life opportunities for boys and men of color. Advancements in opportunity for boys and men of color at local and national levels will occur only when we comprehensively address the major forces impeding progress: inequitable life opportunities structured along geographical and racial lines (e.g., residential and school segregation); inadequate public demand for action, buttressed by explicit and implicit negative views and biases against the population (e.g., as reinforced through news media, entertainment, and popular culture); and a lack of leadership opportunities for boys and men of color that can help them elevate their voices in civic discourse, mentor succeeding generations, and change cultural norms and practices among their peers.

Given rapid demographic shifts, our nation needs to harness the talents and leadership of boys and men of color if we are to remain a strong, vibrant democracy. My Brother’s Keeper is an important step toward this goal. Let’s use this moment to build a new future for our young men.  VRA project draft Master, 3.1.15 (final)


EVENT: Arkansas Minority Health Summit- April 18th


Date: Friday, April 18, 2014
Time: 8:00 AM- 5:00 PM
Join public health leaders from around the country for a full day of activities designed to provide learning opportunities about new and emerging trends focused on health equity for minority communities in Arkansas.
Be in attendance as we release the results of a new UAMS study, funded by the Arkansas Minority Health Commission, that suggests that eliminating health disparities for Arkansas minorities would have resulted in a reduction of direct medical care expenditures of $518.60 million in 2010. In this study, AMHC and UAMS sought to estimate the economic impact of racial and ethnic disparities in Arkansas.
Morgan McLeod is the Program Assistant and New Media Strategist at the Joint Center

For young minority men, equal opportunity needed

By: Dr. Brian Smedley

Consistent with his State of the Union pledge to use the “pen or the phone” to advance his priorities, in late February President Obama announced a White House-led initiative to address the needs of boys and young men of color. The president understands that improving life outcomes for young minority men and boys is important for them and their families, and vital to the nation’s security and prosperity. The question before the country is whether, nearly 150 years after the constitutional embrace of African Americans into the bosom of American family and society, we can shift our collective view of young minority men and boys from being a “problem” to being assets and talent the nation needs.

The White House announcement builds upon years of efforts by scholars, community groups, think tanks, and philanthropic organizations to call attention to the plight of young minority men, who are more likely than their white peers to drop out of school, experience a disproportionate burden of health risks and health problems, suffer unemployment, and fall into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Nearly a decade ago, the Dellums Commission (named for former congressman and Oakland mayor Ronald V. Dellums and organized by the Dr. Gail Christopher, formerly of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington), sought to identify and offer strategies to address the multiple challenges faced by young men and boys of color. Its summary report, “A Way Out,” noted that the challenges these young men face are often the result not only of neglect and marginalization, but also of bad policy.

Many of the barriers facing men and boys of color are rooted in residential segregation, a problem that has eased nationwide but that nevertheless persists at high levels. Several U.S. cities, including Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Newark, have levels of segregation only slightly lower than what existed in apartheid-era South Africa. Segregation concentrates poverty by excluding and isolating people of color from the mainstream resources – health care, high-quality schools, investment capital, access to good jobs – that are needed for success, and it plays a significant role in the racial wealth gap: Homes owned in segregated communities don’t appreciate at the same rates as homes in majority-white communities, and they were more likely to have been lost to their owners as a result of the subprime and predatory lending crisis.

The Dellums Commission noted that these trends “perpetuat(e) a matrix of exclusion.” Despite similar rates of drug use among white, black, Native American, and Latino youth, law enforcement is more likely to target young men of color, who then go on to face a juvenile and criminal justice system in which  their outcomes at every step are demonstrably worse than for their white peers, even controlling for the type of offense and court history. Young men of color are more likely than whites to be expelled from school as a result of “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies, and black job applicants with no criminal record have a harder time getting a callback for a job than white job applicants who do have criminal records.

How significant is the impact of this marginalization for economic potential and productivity in the United States? Given that more than two of five boys under age 18 living in the United States are a racial minority, and that minority men will soon constitute a majority of the male workforce, the risk of maintaining the status quo is huge. States are beginning to recognize that years of over-investment in prisons and criminal justice, with typically accompanying reductions in education and health care, have led to dead ends for too many men who, with appropriate prevention and diversion services, could otherwise be productive contributors to society.

The Dellums Commission offered an array of solutions to these barriers, many of which have been considered and implemented in communities around the country. For example, noting the high proportion of boys and men of color who display symptoms of trauma as a result of exposure to violence in schools, homes, and neighborhoods, the commission called for greater local, state, and federal investments in prevention and treatment for mental health problems, as well as pretrial diversion and treatment-focused sentencing for non-violent drug offenders.

A White House-led initiative has the potential to effect broader change. Using the pen and the phone, President Obama can encourage employers to “ban the box,” that is, eliminate questions about prior felony convictions for job applicants. The president can call out negative media portrayals of young men of color and encourage more balanced and nuanced treatment. He can challenge societal expectations of young men of color, as he has done by noting how his upbringing benefited from growing up in a highly diverse, pluralistic community.

The White House initiative falls short of actual legislation, but it has the potential to move the ball forward on one of the nation’s most vexing challenges – how to value people who for decade after decade have been denied an equal chance to pursue their ambitions, and who have everything to offer to solve the nation’s challenges.

Brian Smedley, PhD., is the Vice President and Director of the Joint Center’s Health Policy Institute

JC Foundational Work on Young Men of Color: The Dellums Commission


The Joint Center is delighted to see greater attention to addressing the needs of young men and boys of color, a segment of our society that too often faces disproportionate challenges to success. The White House announced this week the launch of their new My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, aimed at empowering boys and young men of color. The Joint Center convened one of the earliest groups to assess the impact of key public policies on the physical, emotional, and social health of young males of color, The Dellums CommissionClick here to see the Joint Center’s key work on young men of color.

Mississippi Grieving: Remembering Mayor Chokwe Lumumba

By: Felicia Eaves, Program Associate, Joint Center Health Policy Institute

As with President Obama, when Chokwe Lumumba decided to run for Mayor of Jackson Mississippi, there was much uncertainty about whether a black man with an African name that no one could pronounce could win the but win he did. During his brief tenure he was well received by both blacks and whites as they inspired by his vision to create a more equitable Jackson Mississippi.



By: Spencer Overton, Interim President and CEO of the Joint Center

This past week I started as Interim President and CEO of the Joint Center.  Founded in 1970, the Joint Center is a leading think tank on public policy and people of color.  The picture above is from our 2013 dinner, and for a flavor of some of our work see this short “Place Matters” video (where you live affects your health) and these foundational studies on improving the lives of young men of color.

Various supporters got us off to a good start with wonderful words (thanks Cory Booker, Ralph Everett, Caroline Fredrickson, Ben Ginsberg, Fred Humphries, Barbara Johnson, Heather McGhee, Charles Ogletree, Norm Ornstein, Dan Pabon, Chellie Pingree, Rashad Robinson, Terri Sewell, and Brian Smedley).  Several organizations extended special support, including but not limited to the Advancement Project, the Brennan Center, Demos, and W.K. Kellogg.

Along with navigating a blizzard during a NYC trip, the week included great conversations with many stakeholders (e.g., Joint Center staff, leaders from racial equity organizations, foundations, organizations of elected officials of color, and others).  I have many more important stakeholders with whom to connect in the near future.   We also took initial steps to build a vibrant online community, improve our collaborative work, and generate resources for general capacity building.

Personally, I’m thrilled to be at the Joint Center at this critical moment.  While the challenges we face are similar to those of other nonprofits, the challenges are not insurmountable, and are outweighed by opportunities.

I am optimistic about the future of the Joint Center for several reasons.

Legacy organizations often deny that change is necessary.  I am encouraged that the Joint Center board and staff all agree we must revamp the organization.  Already, we have started making some difficult decisions, including cutting spending.   We are rethinking everything – operations, development, talent, the method of delivering ideas, and much more.

Evolving technology has transformed many industries—including the think tank and policy arenas.  The opportunities for increased efficiencies, effectiveness, and capacity at the Joint Center are clear and significant.

The implementation of the Affordable Care Act is a key national issue, and the Joint Center’s Health Policy Institute–led by Dr. Brian Smedley–remains a national leader on health policy equity.

Further, increasing diversity, economic and racial disparities, media fragmentation, and polarization create a significant need for a well-functioning Joint Center.  The Joint Center is uniquely positioned to bring together government officials, the private sector, communities of color, racial equity and grassroots advocacy groups, think tanks, scholars, and the philanthropic community to devise new ideas and solutions.

This is a leadership moment for all of us.  The Joint Center represents an incredible and important opportunity—a platform for us to work together to solve many of our nation’s most pressing problems.  My first ask—please follow the Joint Center on Twitter here,  Facebook here, and/or email updates here (scroll to bottom left).  More soon.  I look forward to your ideas, and to working with you on this important cause.  Our moment is now.

JC Foundational Work on Young Men of Color: The Dellums Commission

The Joint Center is delighted to see greater attention to addressing the needs of young men and boys of color. The Washington Post reports, for example, that The White House is poised to make a major new effort on young men of color. The Joint Center convened one of the earliest groups to assess the impact of key public policies on the physical, emotional, and social health of young males of color, The Dellums Commission. Click here to see the Joint Center’s key work on young men of color.