This is about my son and his generation … and this is also about all the young men we have already lost.
As I sat in the East Room of the White House, joined by fellow members of Congress and an incredible gathering of African-American and Hispanic luminaries, I was struck by how deeply President Barack Obama’s words affected me as he announced his “My Brother’s Keeper” national initiative to lift up young men of color.
This privately funded, five-year, $200 million project will connect the best of American philanthropy, corporate leadership, organized labor, educational institutions and nonprofit groups who have answered the president’s bipartisan call to step up and reach out to young, male African-Americans and Hispanics to guide them toward good decisions, better life opportunities and positive outcomes.
As the president noted, even with the incredible progress we have made in this country, young men of color are still far more likely to grow up in a home without a father, get caught up in the criminal justice system for minor offenses, fail to achieve in school, and tragically, much more likely to become the victims of violence.
President Obama said, “We assume this is an inevitable part of American life, instead of the outrage that it is.”
He’s absolutely right. For far too many of our young men, we have allowed the abnormal to become the norm. We have accepted failure and futility as the most likely outcomes for them. For the sake of our people and for the future of this great country, that’s unacceptable.
This is a great moral challenge for America, and it’s also a vital economic issue because we can’t afford to allow another generation of young men to fall prey to the disparities that too often divert them off the path of productivity toward violence, lack of opportunity, persistent poverty and despair.
They need to share in our economy’s future and have the opportunity to become true stakeholders in the life of our nation.
As the president continued, I reflected back on my own life, and just like him, when I was a young man, I made mistakes, and I certainly received more than my share of second chances to get back on the right path.
Then I thought about my 13-year-old son. I am so blessed and proud to be his father, and I have so many hopes for him.
But for his sake, and for the future of all our young men of color, we need to end the punitive and racially stacked pipeline to prison, and replace it with a positive track that leads to a job, and a chance for a fulfilling life. Programs like my ninth annual Career Fair, which will be held June 2 at Harris-Stowe State University, do just that by matching eager young job seekers with over 100 top local employers who are actually hiring at all levels.
Those of us in leadership positions, regardless of party, have an obligation to support President Obama’s bold new effort to bring together the tremendous resources available across this country to create ladders of opportunity for young black and Latino men to overcome the very real obstacles they still face in employment, education, health care, the justice system and the right to live up to their full potential, without fear.
It’s too late for Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and Emmett Till, but it’s not too late to lift up tens of millions of our young men who are hungry for our time, for our loving and persistent discipline and for our unyielding high expectations for their future success.
They have a responsibility to do the hard work that is required to overcome the many obstacles they must face, and we have an obligation to let them know that this country still cherishes their hopes and values their lives.
As the president concluded his remarks, I observed how the audience, both young and old, was deeply moved by his emotional appeal to help our young men.
Once again, President Obama reminded me why I chose to become one of his earliest supporters back in 2007.
He is today, as he was then … a brilliant young leader with a great heart and a bold vision of equal opportunity for every young American, regardless of the circumstances that they were born into.
I share that vision, and I am glad to stand with him as we push forward in this year of action.
U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay is a Democrat from St. Louis. This commentary originally appeared on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.