Our View: Finally, President Obama takes on race reality

03/16/2014 12:00 AM

03/17/2014 3:26 PM

Since World War II, the post-presidency years of most of our former chief executives have centered around the construction of their presidential libraries, writing their memoirs, burnishing their legacies through foundations, making vast amounts of money, and, in many ways, doing some social good.

The foundations of presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, for example, have directed untold millions of dollars to charitable groups. Carter and Clinton were relatively young when they left the presidency, as will be President Barack Obama at 56.

Moved by the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin and troubled by the direction of some young African American men, Obama has created a new foundation called My Brother’s Keeper. With a five-year commitment and $200 million in seed money from private foundations and donors, My Brother’s Keeper will attempt to find answers to many of the most stubborn problems still facing young men of color. Obama himself notes that this will be the central work of his post-presidency.

Sadly, the litany of problems that My Brother’s Keeper will address is not a mystery to America: lack of adequate parenting, substandard education, institutional racism within power structures, and chronically high entanglement within the criminal justice system all are factors contributing to these issues facing young black and Latino males.

Calling the pursuit of a national strategy for young minority men a “moral issue for our country” at a Feb. 27 speech at the White House, Obama cited himself as a kid who could have just as well gone off track.

“I didn’t have a dad in the house,” Obama noted somberly. “And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes, I sold myself short.”

Obama did indeed figure out his life, going to Occidental College, then on to Columbia University. From there, Harvard Law School, Illinois politics, the U.S. Senate, and, in 2008, the White House. This is a well-known narrative.

What is not well known is why Obama waited five years to make this a national priority.

Perhaps it was his seeming reluctance to call attention to himself as the first black president, a self-evident and resonant milestone not just visible to young African Americans but to all Americans, that led to that delay. Obama seemingly avoided racial conversations at times, addressing them academically rather than emotionally, a habit he has honed in many other areas of his presidency.

Distracted by a massive financial collapse, the winding down of two wars, and the fight to pass and implement the Affordable Care Act, Obama had little political capital to expend on the problems of young men of color. Had he weighed in from the start, would some have been saved from a fate otherwise avoided with help from My Brother’s Keeper?

In the past five years, this nation has had a conversation about race, though at times it seemed more like a national screaming match. When Obama weighs in on issues he actually cares about, his rhetoric soars and he gets things done. Now with the end of his term in office within sight, his engagement in the awful and intractable problems facing a group whose very problems were his own is a welcome restart to yet another national conversation.

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