WASHINGTON — President Obama spoke in unusually personal terms at the White House on Thursday about how he got high as a teenager and was at times indifferent to school as he deplored what he called America’s numbness to the plight of young black men.
Drawing on the power of his own racial identity in a way he seldom does as president, Obama sought to connect his personal narrative about growing up without a father to that of a generation of young people of color in the United States who he said faced higher odds of failure than their peers.
“I didn’t have a dad in the house,” Obama said as he announced a $200 million, five-year initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, to help young black men. “And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it 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.”
Obama said the idea for My Brother’s Keeper occurred to him in the aftermath of the killing of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager whose death two years ago sparked a roiling national debate about race and class. He called the challenge of ensuring success for young men of color a “moral issue for our country” as he ticked off the statistics: black teens who are more likely to be suspended from school, less likely to be able to read, and almost certain to encounter the criminal justice system as either a perpetrator or a victim.
“We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life, instead of the outrage that it is,” Obama told an audience of business leaders, politicians, philanthropists, young black men from a Chicago support program, and the parents of Trayvon Martin. “It’s like a cultural backdrop for us in movies, in television. We just assume, of course it’s going to be like that.”
“These statistics should break our hearts,” he said. “And they should compel us to act.”
Obama’s remarks come as the end of his time in office is in sight, with the president mindful of the legacy that his administration will leave behind on race and other civil rights issues like same-sex marriage, immigration, and voters’ access to the ballot box.
Although Obama nods on occasion to his history-making status as the nation’s first black president, he has sought to avoid being defined entirely by his race. He most often emphasizes that he is the leader of all Americans. But in recent years, the president has spoken more about the black experience in the United States — most strikingly after the killing of Trayvon Martin, when Obama said, “If I had son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
On Thursday, the president also called for action from business leaders, members of religious groups, actors, athletes and anyone who can intervene in the lives of black men before they veer off course. He said a White House task force would examine ways the federal government can help, too.
“It doesn’t take that much, but it takes more than we are doing now,” Obama said. “We will beat the odds. We need to give every child — no matter what they look like, no matter where they live — the ability to meet their full potential.”
He also challenged black men to do better themselves, and said they must not make excuses for their failures or blame society for the poor decisions they have made.
“You will have to reject the cynicism that says the circumstances of your birth or society’s lingering injustices necessarily define you and your future,” Obama said.