Thursday, June 19, 2014

The "what about me?" syndrome

For years black academics criticized the Obama administration for not targeting programs to the African American community. Obamacare didn't count - even though it has disproportionately affected people of color. All of his talk about income inequality didn't matter, neither did his proposal for universal pre-K. What they wanted to see were initiatives that directly (and only) affected African Americans.

Then along came the announcement about President Obama's "My Brother's Keeper" program targeting boys of color. It didn't take long for many of the same critics to go after that one because it didn't include girls. As I see it, this is what most efforts to target a specific community will eventually face...the "what about me?" syndrome.

That's not to say that its wrong to initiate and promote targeted programs. Sometimes they're needed. Its more about the fact that when they are proposed, we need to remember WHY they're targeted and - by definition - will exclude.

There's a reason why I referred to "black academics" in describing the critics. Efforts like "My Brother's Keeper" have been underway in many communities around the country without the kind of backlash we're seeing to President Obama's initiative (see: Becoming a Man). There are even national programs like the Cradle to Prison Pipeline started years ago by the Children's Defense Fund (based on the fact that 1 in 3 black boys will spend time in prison over their lifetime) that have escaped the "what about me" syndrome. That's because people in the community (both men and women) KNOW these issues in their bones. It is their sons, grandsons, brothers, nephews, etc. who are living the reality right in front of their eyes. Truth be told, they're pissed and want action to change things...yesterday!

All of that is not to say that women of color don't experience their own kind of oppression in this country. But the last thing that is going to be effective is to simply import an initiative designed to help boys (i.e., My Brother's Keeper) and assume it will be effective in helping girls. As someone who worked in this field for decades, I can say with certainty that both the challenges and the solutions are very different. This is an example of where targeted initiatives are necessary.

My prescription would be that we celebrate the hell out of My Brother's Keeper because it targets a problem that is imploding in our communities. And while we're at it, let's articulate the unique challenges that face girls of color and get to work on identifying and organizing efforts that are successful in addressing them.

In many ways, My Brother's Keeper was propelled by work that has been underway in communities around the country (and national organizations like the Children's Defense Fund) for years now. President Obama's initiative is a reaction to that rather than the other way around. That's what we mean by "Yes We Can!" The question then is not so much "what is President Obama going to do about girls of color?" Instead its: "what are WE going to do?"

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