In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama announced a new initiative focused on the needs of boys and men of color. While the overall address received much applause, this new effort was met with a conspicuous silence.
The president may have anticipated this less than generous response. As if to preemptively address his critics, he assured the nation that this initiative would not require any money from the government and instead would be funded through private donations from foundations and other nongovernment entities.
In naming this initiative "My Brother’s Keeper," perhaps the White House is not just asking whether we can help boys and men of color but asking: Can we really care to help them? Can we come to see them as family, worthy of nurturing, respect, and regard?
While some may find this question provocative, others may find it obvious.
Studies of how Americans view boys and men of color, and particularly black boys and men of color, show strong empirical evidence that many people, at an implicit level, do not see boys and men of color as family or as deserving of regard and care. If this were just a matter of individual feeling, it would be of some interest, but only to a limited extent. We are talking not just about how we feel about each other individually but also how we do so collectively through our structures and policies.
Important questions about My Brother’s Keeper have been raised. Even those who undoubtedly care about men and boys of color have questioned, "But why this group and not others?"
Some may acknowledge that there is a strong case that black boys need focused support but also ask, "What about girls and women of color?"
We can continue to add to that line of questioning, "What about white girls and women? What about disabled people? What about any groups that through no fault of their own find themselves struggling to stay in their homes, afford higher education, or keep their families on track?"
These are important and legitimate questions, and they deserve to be answered. The federal government, in using its resources, including its moral authority, has an obligation to all of its members, not just to some. When it focuses on some and not all, we need an explanation as to why.
What must inform our policies is not equal treatment but equal concern for all groups and individuals. A plan that focuses on everyone, without recognizing that different groups are in unique situations and need responses appropriate to their position, will fail at delivering equal concern or effective outcomes.
We can understand this idea if we think of individuals who are in a wheelchair trying to reach an upper floor. An escalator will not support those individuals in the same way as it would those who are able-bodied. It is not the disabled group that needs fixing but the structure. The goal is to convey everyone to the upper floor, and it is universal. But the strategy to achieve this goal must be targeted toward the disabled individuals to address their circumstances, which differ from those of other groups. We call this strategy "targeted universalism."
Does this mean that we should only focus on the individuals in the wheelchair? No.
But neither does it mean that we treat all groups attempting to get to the upper floor the same. A targeted universalism approach is concerned about the mobility of all groups while recognizing that some groups will require targeted strategies to get there.
Should we remain concerned about groups that are still not being targeted or well served, such as women and girls of color? The simple answer is yes.
Notice that if we build an elevator, it benefits not only the wheelchair-bound group but also everybody else. When we transform structures to work for marginalized groups, it can often benefit all groups, and it certainly doesn’t harm any of them, including those with unlimited mobility.
This is not to deny the experience of women of color or women in general or disabled people or any other marginalized or vulnerable group. Those who would seriously argue against focusing on groups that are situated differently would have to reject not only focusing on boys and men of color but all groups. Instead, we need to better understand how different groups are situated and embrace a plan to support all groups, understanding that resources and time frames should not and cannot be the same.
Certainly, boys and men of color are strongly connected to girls and women of color structurally, culturally, and otherwise. They share the same racially and economically isolated environments and experience the same forms of concentrated disadvantage. If we focus on the systems and structures that negatively affect boys and men of color, it will also benefit girls and women, as well as other low-income groups of color.
If these broken structures are properly repaired for men and boys of color, benefits would extend to many groups. Not all groups have the same relationship to schools, housing, the criminal-justice system, and other structures, but boys and men of color may be like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. The canary exposes toxic air earlier than humans. In fixing the air for the canary, the benefit is extended to all who breathe.
Addressing the needs of the most vulnerable serves everyone. Concern that nontargeted groups will receive inadequate support is not an argument against properly targeted programs.
Because none of us lies outside the circle of human concern, we must prevent anyone from languishing there. An approach to effective policy should be based not only on our unique positions in society but also on our shared humanity. We are indeed our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.