I have a vivid memory of my first visit to Sing Sing Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Some young inmates were reading my book, The Soul of Politics, as part of a seminary program in the infamous prison, and they invited me to come discuss it with them. The warden gave me and about 50 young men several hours together, and I will never forget the comment one of them made: “Jim, most of us here are from just five or six neighborhoods in New York City. It’s like a train that starts in my neighborhood, and you get on when you are 9 or 10 years old. The train ends up here at Sing Sing.” But then he said, “Some of us have been converted, and when we get out, we’re going to go back and stop that train.”
That’s exactly what President Obama’s launch of “My Brother’s Keeper” is calling us to do: to stop the train that is taking young men of color from broken economies, schools, families, and lives into despair, anger, disengagement, trouble, violence, crime, prison, and even death at an early age. This is an urgent and long-overdue moral call that must supersede all our political differences.
While the president’s agenda has always included goals intended to help all Americans, this launch was painfully, powerfully, and prophetically specific. The president said:
“…the plain fact is there are some Americans who, in the aggregate, are consistently doing worse in our society — groups that have had the odds stacked against them in unique ways that require unique solutions; groups who’ve seen fewer opportunities that have spanned generations. … 50 years after Dr. King talked about his dream for America’s children, the stubborn fact is that the life chances of the average black or brown child in this country lags behind by almost every measure, and is worse for boys and young men. “
As he pointed out, the problem begins in school: young boys of color are disproportionately behind in educational proficiency and are more likely than their white peers to drop out or be expelled from school. Fast forward a few years, and men of color are more likely to be arrested, incarcerated, and killed.
“And the worst part is we’ve become numb to these statistics ,” the president said. (emphasis added). “… But these statistics should break our hearts. And they should compel us to act.”
The launch of “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative is a call for our many national sectors — philanthropic, corporate, civil society, the faith community, and public policy on all levels — to together enhance opportunities and positive outcomes, and eliminate or reduce negative ones, for young men of color.
Charles M. Blow’s New York Times column on the initiative began with this historic quote from Frederick Douglass: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” That’s exactly what America is still doing to young men of color in poor neighborhoods — turning them into broken men. Even affluent black families still must have “ the talk” with their sons about how they need to protect themselves from other men with guns.
My two sons have shown me how crucial the role of “father” is, and I believe that a societal renewal of strong fatherhood is central to this mission. But how do you embody strong fatherhood if you don’t know what it looks like? Blow accurately and painfully laments:
“When there is an empty space where a father should be, sorrow often grows. …. Many boys with that empty space lash out and act up, trying to be seen, searching, as people do, for love and affirmation, wanting desperately to be validated. And too many of us, in turn, see them as menaces rather than as boys struggling — often without sufficient instruction and against a tide of systemic inequity — to simply become men.”
This is a moral call that must not just be left to people of color, or to black and Hispanic churches. It must be heard and responded to by all of us, including white leaders, parents, and all of our churches. Because these children are our children. These men are our brothers. Are we our brothers’ keepers? As Christians, our answer must be yes.
It is past time for us to heed the call to enter into the lives of boys of color — before they become broken men.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners . His book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good, is now available. Watch the Story of the Common Good HERE . Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.