(NEW YORK) — During the first four years of the Obama presidency, 22,000 African-American men were murdered. “You can’t hide from this problem,” former Secretary of State Colin Powell said to ABC’s Pierre Thomas for This Week, attributing ongoing violence and racial injustice to “historic roots [that] continue to contaminate the present.”
The problems sprouting from those historical roots include an African-American high school graduation rate 28% below their white peers’, and higher rates of crime – both as victims and as victimizers.
Hoping to make headway at last on these intractable problems, President Obama this week launched the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, aimed at tying together the nation’s best mentoring programs and providing educational and economic opportunities to at-risk youth.
For President Obama, “My Brother’s Keeper” is not just policy; it’s personal. At the launch event on Thursday, Obama spoke of the young black men whose paths, he said, could easily have been his own.
“When I was their age, I was a lot like them,” President Obama said. ”I didn’t have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses.”
As part of the announcement, the president unveiled pledges of $350 million in private donations and commitments from leaders from all walks of American life to help young men break the cycle of violence and poverty.
One strong supporter of the program is Los Angeles Lakers legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who said that the symbolic power of “the most powerful man in the world saying that we have a problem” could not be overstated.
“We can jump on this problem early, and also tell the parents that they need to get with . . . their sons early,” Johnson told ABC’s Pierre Thomas. “I think we can turn this problem around, but it’s going to take all of us.”
White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett addressed criticism from some African-American activists who have accused President Obama of failing his community by not being proactive earlier in his time in office on addressing the specific needs of minority communities.
Jarrett said that the economic crisis in the first term of Obama’s presidency made it impossible to get everyone’s attention focused on solving even the most important social problems. But, she concluded, “now that the economy is growing, now is the point where we have to make sure that every child has an opportunity.”
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John Newsome and Anne Woolsey, CNN