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President Obama is launching a new initiative this afternoon, aimed at helping young black and Latino men. They are more likely to drop out of school, less likely to find good jobs, and more than six times as likely to be murdered as young white men. In addressing these challenges, the president is once again wading into some turbulent racial waters, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Kerron Turner doesn't want to be one of those grim statistics. The 19-year-old hopes to graduate from a Chicago high school this spring. He's enrolled in a local dropout and violence prevention program and he says it's made a difference.
KERRON TURNER: I had anger issues with my teachers, with people outside of the school, and I don't see that in me no more. It actually changed.
HORSLEY: A year ago, Turner and the other students in the program got a visit from President Obama. Like many of them, the president had grown up without a father, wrestling with his place in the world, and he saw himself in their shoes.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I had issues, too, when I was their age. I just had an environment that was a little more forgiving.
HORSLEY: The visit made an impression on Turner.
TURNER: It made me feel like, you know, we wasn't the only one that went through it. Like, I can do the same thing he did, you know. Follow him, his footsteps, and try not to create much of a mess of your life.
HORSLEY: The session made an impression on the president as well. He invited the Chicago students to the White House for a Father's Day event last year. Despite his obvious personal concern, Obama has not always been so outspoken about the challenges facing young black men - worried, perhaps, about being seen as too much the African-American president.
The backlash in 2009, when he spoke out about the arrest of a black Harvard professor, only added to his caution. But political scientist Lester Spence of Johns Hopkins University says events like the shooting of Trayvon Martin two years ago this week have forced the president's hand.
LESTER SPENCE: I've see a rhetorical evolution. I think that the plight of young black men, which has gotten worse in a number of key indicators, has affected him to the point where he thinks, you know, six years into his term that he needs to do something.
HORSLEY: Aides say this is something Obama will continue to work on after leaving office. When George Zimmerman was acquitted last summer in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Obama called the effort to help young black men a long term project.
OBAMA: This is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about. There are a lot of kids out there who need help, who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them?
HORSLEY: Obama quickly added he's not talking about a big new government program, but rather bringing together business people, athletes, celebrities and faith leaders to help young black men feel more a part of society. Big foundations have promised to spend at least $200 million on the effort over the next five years. But some African-American observers, like Spence, would like to see a bigger investment by the government itself.
SPENCE: Role modeling is not governing. He's taking a symbolic standing as the first black president and he's using that to stand in for programmatic initiatives that deal with the material lives that black boys are living.
HORSLEY: There are elements of the president's plan that involve government, including new efforts to review school discipline and both the juvenile and adult justice systems. But Marshaun Bacon, a Chicago youth counselor, says don't discount the importance of role models.
MARSHAUN BACON: This is about helping young men to be better. It's about helping people to, you know, strive for the best in themselves. So for these guys to be able to have this opportunity, for them to be able to see such inspirational people rooting for them, that's great for me personally.
HORSLEY: It's going to take a lot, says 19-year-old Kerron Turner. We just need to try. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.
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