President Barack Obama served notice in his State of the Union speech that he intends to make 2014 a year of action on his ‘opportunity agenda’ for all the people of the United States. For millions of Black Americans and others who yearn for a better quality of life, it was refreshing and good to hear President Obama affirm that he would act independently of the Congress, when he can, on issues of minimum wage increase for federal contractors, improving the quality and access to education, job preparation, and innovations in economic development.
After watching suffering disrespect and an all-out attack on him by conservative Republicans, it was way past due time for President Obama to finally stand up to his political opponents. He stated: “After five years of grit and determined effort, the United States is better-positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth. The question for everyone in this chamber, running through every decision we make this year, is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress.”
While the national and international media focused on the President Obama’s announcement that by executive order, the minimum wage for federal contract workers would be raised to $10.10 an hour, there was another important, but little-noticed part his address that potentially could have a positive impact on the Black American community. President Obama emphasized, “And I’m reaching out to some of America’s leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing especially tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential.”
Young Black men in the U.S. are the most disproportionately incarcerated, the victims of homicides, the largest percentage of the unemployed, and represent the highest percentage of high school dropouts. But with the responsive leadership and commitments, allocation of resources, and outreach, encouragement, nurture and care, the negative socioeconomic situation of young Black men can be turned around.
“The bottom line is, Michelle and I want every child to have the same chance this country gave us,” President Obama said. “But we know our opportunity agenda won’t be complete, and too many young people entering the workforce today will see the American Dream as an empty promise, unless we also do more to make sure our economy honors the dignity of work, and hard work pays off for every single American.”
In the past, President Obama has been roundly criticized when he spoke candidly about the plight of the Black family. Much was the criticism was because the president seemed to focus Black imperfections while failing to hold up the same mirror to Whites. In that respect, the criticism is understandable.
But even so, the truth is we all must take a greater responsibility for the uplift of all women, men and children in all our communities. It is not just up to the president, governor, mayor or members of congress alone to fix the problems that confront our communities. We must also assume greater and more consistent responsibility for the empowerment of our people.
We are, therefore, pleased that our Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have stepped up to the plate of self-responsibility on the issue of helping young Black males and have endorsed a remarkably successful pilot effort led by Ronald Mason, President of the Southern University System in Louisiana entitled ‘Five Fifths Agenda for America.’
President Mason’s vision for this long-term program is a comprehensive approach to nurture and empower young Black males. There are four underlying strategic goals of the Five Fifths Agenda: 1) To increase the number of Black males that attain a bachelor degree; 2) To increase the number of Black male teachers and graduates in the sciences and math; 3) HBCUs will serve as institutional homes and development centers for long-term systemic change for America; and 4) To promote, foster and facilitate a truthful, national conversation about the relationship between Black men and America, both historically and contemporarily.
When President Obama referred to helping “young men of color,” I smiled because I already knew the Obama administration was actively supporting efforts to get the Five Fifths Agenda for America adequately funded. We thank President Obama not just for another great speech but also for his leadership, action and outreach to our young brothers who need to be uplifted. Lastly, we remain very grateful to President Ronald Mason, Southern University, NAFEO the White House Initiative on HBCUs for responding to this issue.
(Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. is president of Education Online Services Corporation and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. He can be reached at: <www.drbenjaminfchavisjr.wix.com/drbfc>.)