Race and federalism in 'My Brother's Keeper' initiative
Last week President Obama announced his administration's latest initiative, titled "My Brother's Keeper". The program largely functions by petitioning private donors to fund programs designed to help men of color overcome the obstacles preventing them from becoming fully integrated and successful members of society. Though doubtless the program was conceived with the noblest of intentions, there are certain elements that are troubling.
This program is merely the latest in a vast train of programs and initiatives reflecting a deep misunderstanding of the American system of federalism. There is no grant of power in the Constitution for the president or Congress to address this issue. The founders intended most issues of public concern to be regulated by the states, saving for the federal government such issues that were of distinctly national concern, such as defense and interstate commerce. Some may argue that this issue is a national problem as it is a problem facing every state, but this position misinterprets the notion of "national concern." Issues of national concern are those that no state could possibly deal with on its own, not those endemic to every state. Education and crime are issues in every state, yet each is properly given the discretion to address those issues as it sees fit. The problem is that the states have consistently had their discretion usurped by persistent federal preemption, denying them the resources to address many issues, including those facing some of our youth. The federal government gathers the majority of our nation's tax revenue, denying the states the funds they need to address problems of this nature. The federal government then distributes some of its revenue back to the states to fund programs. It does this rather than have the states directly collect the funds because this method allows it discretion over the implementation of the programs. Barriers facing some of our youth are serious and important issues we should address, but they should be addressed by the proper authority.
A second troubling element of this program is its racial focus. Though the president initially announced that his administration seeks "to give a hand up to everybody, every child, every American" he followed up by stating that there are some groups who are "consistently doing worse in our society" and that they require "unique solutions." These groups are African-American and Latino young men. As the president notes, members of these groups are more likely to have an absent father or end up in the criminal justice system and less likely to be at proficient reading levels in school or be in the labor force as adults. No one questions these correlations, but they are no justification for racial discrimination in a program designed to help troubled youths. It is wrong to prevent an at-risk white boy who is falling behind from receiving the benefits of this program merely because there are a large number of boys who share his skin color doing well. That fact does nothing to ameliorate the problems he is facing. This program seems to be less motivated by the desire to help disadvantaged young boys obtain the skills required to succeed in society, than by the desire to insure that boys are equally disadvantaged among different racial groups. It is undeniable that men of color face many more challenges than other groups due to the odious legacy of the institution of slavery and systemic racial discrimination, but we should not seek to overcome the problems caused by racial discrimination by continuing to racially discriminate. Racial thinking has had so many insidious effects, it seems absurd we have not yet abandoned it. Some of us may look different than each other and our parents may have come from different lands with different cultures, but that does not separate us into distinct "races." It is our character and actions that are important, not the color of our skin. Racially-motivated actions, such as including racial boxes on forms and this program itself magnifies relatively unimportant variations among us to a level that creates real social distinctions and barriers between us. All children are harmed when their parents abuse drugs or their father is absent, regardless of the color of that child's skin. A government that provides equal justice for all should not to take their citizen's ethnicity into account when seeking to redress problems they are facing. Black, white, or brown, we are all Americans. Perhaps when we recognize we have more commonalities than differences, we can move past these arbitrary divisions.
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