About Me

I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Obama's 'My Brother's Keeper' initiative, and the limits of racial uplift

This past Thursday, President Obama announced the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, a partnership between the public and private sectors aimed at bettering outcomes for some of the nation’s most at-risk young men.  I of course appreciate what New York Times columnist Charles Blow (and Obama) are emphasizing here, but the materialist part of me gets frustrated with this approach to things. 

The struggles of young black men ultimately don't come down to the lack of hugs from their fathers, though obviously we all need that. Material conditions can facilitate nurturing relationships, and they can undermine them. When one looks to the material conditions under which so many young African-American men live, one finds things that are attributable largely to poverty, and are thus shared by many poor Latino and white kids too. But one also finds conditions that have been uniquely imposed upon blacks in this country, and one must address those too.

If Obama wants to truly address the underlying issues, he would create universal preschool, change the welfare system to directly attack child poverty, desegregate suburban housing and schools along lines of race and class, pump massive resources into inner-city schools, and radically transform our predatory criminal justice system, which does more to destroy the lives of young black boys and their families than any uplift efforts can possibly counter. 

Of course, I know that if Obama had a pliant Congress he actually would do many of these things, so I don't blame him entirely. But there is a danger to having our first black president approach these issues in this way, by essentially containing the problem to the behaviors of black adults, and the institutions in black communities, thereby absolving from responsibility and reparation those public and private institutions that sustain racial inequality and white privilege. On the subject of racial inequality, when something is proposed with which everyone nods in agreement (as appears to be the case here), that probably means it isn't worth much. Bit cynical of me, I suppose.