“We failed him,” Valerie Jarrett said, referring to the circumstances that led to Kalief Browder’s suicide. It was the morning of July 6, a year since Browder — who was imprisoned for three years on Rikers Island without trial before being released — had wrapped an air-conditioning cord around his neck and jumped from the second story of his mother’s Bronx home. Jarrett, who is a senior advisor to President Obama, seemed to be deeply aware of the systemic failures that plagued Browder’s young life. By 22, the age he decided he could take no more, Browder had already faced a series of impossible hurdles: he’d been unjustly jailed, violently beaten in lockup, spent two years in solitary confinement, and, upon his release, attempted to get a college degree while battling depression and PTSD. “We’re better than our current criminal justice system,” Jarrett continued. “If we stack the deck against people, we have to ask ourselves if this is the kind of country we want to be. We have to fix the system. We can do better.”
Jarrett’s statements came during a meeting at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for My Brother’s Keeper (MBK), the public-private collaborative program President Obama introduced in February 2014 as a response to the growing disparities young men of color faced, and continue to face, in school and the workforce. At the time of the initiative’s announcement, Obama said: “None of this is going to be easy. This is not a one-year proposition. It’s not a two-year proposition. It’s going to take time. We’re dealing with complicated issues that run deep in our society, and are entrenched in our minds.”
Then as now, many of these complicated issues persist. Last summer, unemployment for 16 to 24-year-old youth, for example, was highest among blacks (20.7 percent) and Latinos (12.7 percent). In the education field, a Pew Research poll from last year found that “in 2013, among Hispanics ages 25 to 29, just 15 percent of Hispanics have a bachelor’s degree or higher,” compared to 40 percent of whites. In another Pew study, it was reported that, in 2010, black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated in federal and state prisons, and local jails. On top of this, black men account for only six percent of the population, but, in 2011, made up 43 percent of murder victims. Homicide, too, remains one of the leading causes of death for black and Latino men ages 10 to 24.
“If we stack the deck against people, we have to ask ourselves if this is the kind of country we want to be. We have to fix the system.” —Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Obama
In response to these realities and others, MBK set out to pave a new path and provide opportunities for youth from communities of color. In Wednesday’s closed-door meeting, Jarrett was accompanied by Broderick Johnson, chair of MBK, and Stephen Benjamin, mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, which became one of 250 cities to partner with the program.
Since its inception in 2014, MBK has implemented what it refers to as “multi-year efforts” in hundreds of neighborhoods across the country. In raising more than $600 million in private sector and philanthropic grants and $1 billion in low-interest financing, MBK helped cut Compton’s homicide rate by 64 percent in 2015, sparked employment for 10,000 young men in Philadelphia as part of the 2015 Summer Jobs Challenge, and empowered 12,000 incarcerated men to pursue postsecondary education and workforce training with the help of Pell Grants. Some states — like Michigan and New York, which allocated $20 million from its budget — have dispensed both federal and local resources into MBK programs. In cities like Indianapolis, MBK and the Department of Education have helped to cultivate job opportunities for more than 200 black men and their families in public housing.
“We know it’s so important for second chances to succeed. [President Obama] wanted to make sure we walk the walk here at the White House,” Johnson said, speaking to not just the program’s impact but how it will endure once Obama leaves office at the end of the year. “This isn’t just time-limited work. We know that if we successfully embed this work in these agencies, and in ways that demonstrate success, that hopefully the next administration will want to build on success.”
MBK’s broad umbrella-approach to education, entrepreneurship, social innovation, and justice reform might seem too wide-ranging at first look, but in the course of two years the program has proven a lofty, if relative, success. “What can we do to ensure that every young child gets a fair shot?” Jarrett said. “What can we do to ensure their dreams turn into reality?”
But even as Jarrett discussed approaches to breaking the school-to-prison pipeline, expanding universal childhood early education, and curbing incarceration rates, the killing of Alton Sterling in Louisiana hung heavy in the room. The night before I arrived on White House grounds, Sterling — a 37-year-old black man and father of five — was shot and killed by officers of the Baton Rouge Police Department. Like the dozens of black men who’ve been memorialized in Twitter hashtags and Instagram posts in recent years, Sterling’s death was a reminder of the fragility of black life.
There is, of course, a kind of singular American irony inherent in the development of My Brother’s Keeper. Its very existence implies just how imbalanced our workforce is, how fractured our education system remains, and how unfairly our justice system operates for young men, and women, of color.
Not even 24 hours after our meeting at the White House ended, 32-year-old Philando Castile would be fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop for a busted taillight. Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, would broadcast the aftermath of the Falcon Heights, Minnesota shooting live on Facebook. “Please don’t tell me he’s gone,” Reynolds says at one point in the video, screaming in despair. “Please Jesus, no.” Before the video fades, Reynolds echoes a well-known certainty for black men trapped in the American nightmare. “The police just shot him for no apparent reason,” she says, “no reason at all.”