President Obama delivered a powerful speech aimed at the young men of color in the United States during the unveiling of his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative.
See the entire transcript below.
Good afternoon everybody. And thank you, Christian, for that outstanding introduction. And thank you for cheering for the White Sox, which is the right thing to do.
Like your parents and your teachers, I could not be prouder of you, I could not be prouder of the other young men who were here today. But just so that you are clear, you are only excused for day of school.
And I’m assume you have your assignments with you so you can catch up, perhaps even on the flight back.
As Christian mentioned, I first met Christian about a year ago. I visited the Hyde Park Academy in Chicago only about a mile from my house. And Christian was part of this program called “Becoming a Man.” It was a program that the Mayor Rahm Emmanuel introduced me to me. And it helps young man who show a lot potential and may have gotten in some trouble to stay on the right path. They got help with school work, but they also learned life skills, like how to be a responsible citizen, and how to deal with life’s challenges, and how to manage frustrations in a constructive way, and how to set goals for themselves. It works. One study found among young man who participated, arrests for violent crimes dropped 44 percent. And they were more likely to graduate from high school.
So as Christian mentioned, during my visit, they’re in a circle, and I sat down in the circle, and we went around, led by their counselor, and guys talked about their lives, talked about their stories, talked about what they were struggling with and how they were trying to do the right thing, and they didn’t always do the right thing.
And when it was my turn, I explained to them when I was their age, I was a lot like them. I didn’t have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realized at the time. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short.
And I remember when I was saying this, Christian, you may remember this — after I was finished, the guy sitting next to me said, “Are you talking about you?” I said, “yes.”
And the point was I could see myself in these young men. And the only difference is that I grew up in an environment that was a little bit more forgiving. So when I made a mistake, the consequences were not as severe. I had people who encouraged me, not just my mom and grandparents, but wonderful teachers and community leaders. And they pushed me to work hard and study hard and make the most of myself. And If I didn’t listen, they said it again. And if I didn’t listen, they said it a third time and they would give me second chances and third chances. They never gave up on me, and so I didn’t give up on myself.
I told these young men my story then, and I repeat it now, because I firmly believe that every child deserves the same chances that I had.
That’s why we are here today, to do what we can in this year of action to give more young Americans the support they need to make good choices, and to be resilient and overcome obstacles and achieve their dreams.
This is an issue of national importance. This is as important as any issue that I work on. It’s an issue that goes to the very heart of why I ran for president.
Because if America stands for anything, it stands for the idea of opportunity for everybody. The notion that no matter who you are or where you came from, or the circumstances into which you are born, if you work hard, if you take responsibility, then you can make it in this country.
That’s the core idea. That’s the idea behind everything that I will do this year and for the rest of my presidency. Because at a time when the economy is growing, we’ve got to make sure that every American shares in that growth, not just a few, and that means guaranteeing every child in America has access to a world class education. It means creating more jobs and empowering more workers with the skills they need to do those jobs. It means making sure that hard work pays off with wages you can live on, and savings you can retire on and health care that you can count on. It means building more ladders of opportunity and the middle class for anybody who is willing to work hard to climb it. Those are national issues. They have an impact on everybody.
And the problem of stagnant wages, and economic insecurity and stalled mobility are issues that affect all demographic groups across the country. My administration’s policies from early childhood education to job training to minimum wages are designed to give a hand up to everybody, every child, every American willing to work hard and take responsibility for their own success. That’s the larger agenda.
The plain fact is, there are some Americans who in the aggregate are consistently doing worse in our society. Groups that have had the odds stacked against them in unique way that require unique solutions, groups who have seen fewer opportunities that have spanned generations.
And by almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century, in this country, are boys and young men of color.
Now, to say this is not to deny the enormous strides we’ve made in closing the gaps that have mired our history for so long. My presence is a testimony to that.
Across the businesses, military, communities in every state, we see extraordinary examples of African-American and Latino men who are standing tall and leading and building businesses and making our country stronger.
Some of those role models who have defied the odds are here with us today. You know, the Magic Johnsons or the Colin Powells — who are doing extraordinary things — the Anthony Foxxes.
Anthony and I were talking yesterday about how both of us never knew our dads, and shared that sense of both how hard that had been, but also how that had driven us to succeed in many ways.
So those are examples of extraordinary achievement. We all know that. We don’t need to stereotype that there is no dysfunction out there.
But 50 years after Dr. King talked about his dream for America’s children, the stubborn fact is that the life chances, the average black or brown child in this country, lags behind by almost every measure and is worse for boys and young men.
If you’re African-American, there’s about one-in-two chance you grow up without a father in your house. Too, if you’re Latino, you have about one-in-four chance.
We know boys who grow up without a father are more likely to be poor and as a black student you are less likely to read as proficient in the fourth grade.
By the time you reach high school, you are far more likely to have been suspended or expelled. There’s a higher chance you end up in the criminal justice system. And a far higher chance that you are the victim of a violent crime.
Fewer black and Latino men participate in the labor force, compared to young white men. And all of this translates into higher unemployment rates and poverty rates as adults.
And the worst part is, we’ve become numb to these statistics. We’re not surprised by them. We take them as the norm. We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life, instead of the outrage that it is. That’s how we think about it.
It’s like a cultural backdrop force in movies, television. We just assume, of course it’s going to be like that. But these statistics should break our hearts, and they should compel us to act.
You know, Michelle and I are blessed with two beautiful daughters. We don’t have a son, but I know if I had a son, on the day he was born, I would have felt everything that I felt with Malia and Sasha, the awe, the gratitude, overwhelming responsibility to do everything in my power to protect that amazing new life from this big world out there.
And I want my son to feel a sense of boundless possibility. I want him to have independence and confidence. I want him to have empathy and compassion.
I want him to have a sense of diligence and compassion for himself, the tools that he would need to succeed.
I don’t have a son, but as parents, that’s what we should want, not just for our children but for all children.
And I believe the continuing struggles of so many boys and young men, the fact that too many of them are falling by the wayside, dropping out, unemployed, involved in negative behavior, going to jail, being profiled, this is a moral issue for our country.
It’s also an economic issue for our country. After all, these boys are a growing segment of our population. They are our future workforce.
When generation after generation they lag behind, our economy suffers. Our family structure suffers. Our civic life suffers. Cycles of hopelessness breeds violence and mistrust, and our country’s a little less than what we know it can be.
So, we need to change the statistics, not just for the sake of the young men and boys but for the sake of America’s future.
And that’s why, in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin verdict, with all of the emotions and controversy that it sparked, I spoke about the need to bolster and reinforce our young men and give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them.
And I’m grateful that Trayvon’s parents, Sybrina and Tracy, are here with us today, along with Jordan Davis’ parents, Lucy and Ron.
In my State of the Union address last month, I said I’d pick up the phone and reach out to Americans willing to help young men of color so America can reach its full potential.
And that’s what today is all about. After months of conversation with a wide range of people, we’ve pulled together private philanthropies and businesses, mayors, state and local leaders, faith leaders, nonprofits, all who are committed to creating more pathways to success, and we’re committed to building on what works. And we call it My Brother’s Keeper.
Just to be clear, My Brother’s Keeper is not some new, big government program. In my State of the Union address, I outlined the work that needs to be done for broad base economic growth, the manufacturing hubs, infrastructure spending.
I’ve been talking about what we feed to do to expand economic activity for everybody. And in the absence of some of those macroeconomic policies that create more good jobs and restore security, it’s going to be hard for everyone to make progress.
And for the last four years, we’ve been working through initiatives like “promise zones,” from lack of transportation to schools that are inflicted, and we’ll continue to promote these efforts in rural and urban schools.
Those are programs that we think are good for all Americans and we’re going to keep on pushing for them.
But what we’re talking about here today with My Brother’s Keeper is a more focused effort on boys and young men of color who are having a particularly tough time.
And in this effort, government cannot play the only or even the primary role. We can help give every child access to quality preschool and help them start learning from an early age, but we can’t replace the power of a parent who’s reading to that child.
We can reform our criminal justice system to ensure that it’s not infected with bias.
But nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son’s life.