WASHINGTON — In strong, often personal terms, President Barack Obama called Thursday for vigorous efforts to reverse underachievement among young black and Hispanic males. He also cautioned young minority men not to repeat his own youthful mistakes in an unforgiving world.
The president kicked off his "My Brother's Keeper" initiative from the White House East Room, appearing with teenagers involved in the Becoming a Man program for at-risk boys in his hometown of Chicago.
The aim is to "start a different cycle," Obama said. "If we help these wonderful young men become better husbands and fathers and well-educated, hardworking, good citizens, then not only will they contribute to the growth and prosperity of this country, but they will pass those lessons on to their children, on to their grandchildren."
The president said he, too, could have been a negative statistic, because of his own unfocused anger over having no father at home.
"I made bad choices. I got high, not 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 said.
The large, mostly African-American and Hispanic crowd was dotted with dignitaries, among them black and Hispanic members of Congress, NBA great Earvin "Magic" Johnson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Also present were the parents of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, two black Florida teenagers killed in separate shootings.
Addressing America's young men of color directly, Obama told them to have "no excuses" and to "tune out the naysayers who say if the deck is stacked against you, you might as well just give up or settle into the stereotype."
"Nothing will be given to you," Obama said. "The world is tough out there. There's a lot of competition for jobs and college positions and everybody has to work hard. But I know you guys can succeed."
Under Obama's initiative, businesses, foundations and community groups would coordinate investments to come up with or support programs that help keep young people out of the criminal justice system and improve their access to higher education. Several foundations pledged at least $200 million over five years.
Meanwhile, Obama signed a presidential memorandum creating a government-wide task force to evaluate the effectiveness of various approaches, so governments, community groups and businesses will have best practices to follow. An online "What Works" portal will provide public access to data about programs.