Obama Announces Task Force To Help Young Minority Men

President Obama is launching a new initiative aimed at helping young black and Hispanic men. He'll sign an executive order that sets up a task force to help keep them in school and out of prisons.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Audie Cornish.

President Obama kicked off a new initiative this afternoon, aimed at improving the odds for young black and Latino men. The White House calls the program My Brother's Keeper. The idea is to bring together business people, faith leaders, athletes and celebrities to confront the challenges facing young men of color. Major charities have pledged $200 million to the cause over the next five years.

Speaking in the White House East Room this afternoon, the president said it's a moral and economic imperative.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We need to change the statistics, not just for the sake of the young men and boys but for the sake of America's future.

CORNISH: NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now. And Scott, it was two years ago this week that Trayvon Martin was shot and killed. That story generated a lot of headlines. And I understand his parents were in the audience. How much is this initiative a response to that?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Trayvon Martin's friends were here, Audie, as were the parents of Jordan Davis, another young black man from Florida who died a violent and headline-grabbing death. As the president pointed out, young black men are more than six times as likely to be murdered as young white men, and many of those deaths don't make the news. Last February, the president was in Chicago talking about his gun safety initiative. And while he was there, he met with some young men who were taking part in a violence and dropout prevention program.

And at the time, Obama was very frank in saying when he was a young man, he experienced many of the same frustrations, and made many of the same bad decisions, those teenagers have. And he said: We need to find more ways to help young men of color see more possibilities for themselves. And some of those young men from Chicago were here at the White House this afternoon.

CORNISH: Over the years, some African-American activists have sometimes criticized the president for not being more outspoken about these challenges. Is this a sign that the president is changing his tune?

HORSLEY: Obama has been very cautious about doing anything that might suggest he's too much the African-American president. Certainly, there are many people who want to see him in that light anyway. And in the past, he sometimes brushed aside complaints about, for example, high unemployment in the black community; saying, look, his economic agenda is designed to help all Americans. He repeated that message today. But then he added a wrinkle.

OBAMA: 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.

HORSLEY: And on measure after measure, Obama said the group facing some of the most severe challenges is young black and Latino men.

CORNISH: But is there a political risk for the president here?

HORSLEY: It's possible. I've seen some reaction from people who feel like this program is giving special treatment to young black and Latino men, people who'd prefer to see a more colorblind approach from the White House. To be fair, those are people who probably weren't big supporters of the president to begin with.

Obama was careful to say, look, this is not about creating some big new government program. It is, as you pointed out, mostly about enlisting businesses and community groups and celebrities and faith leaders, trying to create an environment where young black men feel as if they're more a part of society.

CORNISH: And then listening to the president today, was there a sense that there was a little bit of tough love from him as well?

HORSLEY: Yes. He ended his remarks by talking directly to young black and Latino men, both the ones here at the White House and in the broader audience, and his message was, look, no excuses. We've got responsibilities as a society to give you the tools you need, but you've got responsibilities too. In essence, he was passing along the message that he says he heard from his mother, his grandparents, his teachers and others who were there when he was a young man.

And, Audie, I have heard him deliver the same message one on one to young black men throughout his time in office. Now he's doing it on the national stage, and aides say he'll be delivering this message and working on this issue long after he leaves office.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thank you.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Audie.

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