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Letter of Solidarity Urging Inclusion of Women and Girls of Color in My Brothers Keeper

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Washington, D.C., 20500

Dear President Obama,

We write to raise our voices on behalf of young women and girls of color and to urge their inclusion in the administration’s critical initiative for youth of color, “My Brother’s Keeper.”

Over 200 Black men and 1,500 women of color have called for the inclusion of women and girls in the public/private initiative, "My Brothers Keeper" ("MBK"). These letters and the conversation they have generated set forth a compelling case for MBK’s realignment. We write at this juncture to share our growing concern that neither the White House nor its social justice, philanthropic and business partners have taken up this question of inclusion with the urgency it demands.  To the contrary, at a Town Hall meeting July 21, you announced the expansion of MBK — to the tune of $104 million in new programming –  with no mention of fundamentally altering its frame to include women and girls of color.  

As activists, researchers, advocates and feminists committed to racial as well as gender justice, we are not only dismayed by the unfairness of excluding half of children of color from this major initiative, but also fearful of the concrete impacts that exclusion will have on women and girl’s life experiences. We are also concerned about the message this initiative sends about the reality of life for young people of color and their families.  This message will diminish the chances that this important initiative will move us towards the just society for which we are all working.

It is certainly true that racism can affect males and females differently, but years of research have shown that it is simply not the case that racism affects females any less than males, or that the impact on females is less important to families — or to society. Indeed, as this administration has acknowledged in other contexts, every member of a family is affected by the experiences and life chances of its female members.

As you stated at the Working Families Summit in June 2014, “anything that makes life harder for women makes life harder for families and makes life harder for children.”  The same reasoning should apply in the administration’s singular initiative on race.    

We support the use of all available measures—including targeted interventions—to confront racial injustices head-on. We agree that race-specific problems facing youth of color cannot be solved through trickle down efforts or race-blind initiatives. What we simply cannot understand is why the same case for targeted attention fails to extend to women and girls of color?

In MBK’s exclusive focus on young men and boys, not only do the problems of girls and young women entirely disappear, but so too do the women who must be part of the solution.  While importance of fathers has come in for much needed attention from this administration, the fate of boys of color is no less wrapped up with the fate of their mothers, grandmothers, their sisters, and their community.

For all our sakes, and for the success of this program, it is time to end, not reinforce, the fracturing of race from gender and to consider all the intersections of power and privilege that affect life outcomes for our young people.

Those who justify the exclusion of young women and girls based on the so-called “metrics” are perhaps unaware of the overwhelming barriers those young people face:

·          Homicide Rates: In 2010, the homicide rate among Black girls and women ages 10-24 was higher than for any other group of females, and higher than that of white and Asian men as well.

·          School Discipline: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2007, Black girls’ suspension and expulsion rates were higher than that of any other group of girls and higher than that of white and Hispanic boys.

·          Net Wealth Gap: Single Black women and Latinas have the lowest net worth of all racial and gender groups: $100 for Black women and $120 for Latinas, compared to $7,900 for single Black men, $41,500 for single white women, and $43,800 for single white men.

·          Unemployment: Black women ages 18-24 have the highest unemployment rate among women nationwide and, during the Great Recession, lost more jobs than their male counterparts.

·          Incarceration: Like Black men, women of color are incarcerated at far higher rates than their white peers. Black women are incarcerated at nearly 3 times the rate of white women. An estimated 1 in 18 Black women will be incarcerated at least once in their lifetime compared to 1 in 111 white women and 1 in 45 Latinas.

·          Intimate Violence: According to the Centers for Disease Control, women of color experience intimate partner violence—which includes physical violence, stalking and rape—at high rates. Forty-six percent of Alaska Native and Native American women, 44% of Black women, 37% of Latinas, and 20% of Asian/Pacific Islander women experience such violence during their lifetimes.

The Obama administration has spoken of being moved by the testimony given at MBK “listening sessions” around the country, and how encouraged the boys were knowing that their president cared about them. Can it be that hard to imagine that a girl’s life might be altered by the president’s acknowledgment that she too is struggling and that he cares for her as well?

At the crux of matter seems to be the unfortunate belief, most famously put forward by Daniel Patrick Moynihan a half century ago, that families that do not reflect a two-parent nuclear unit are socially pathological and the source of the crisis facing male youth of color.  

We cannot have a democratic country without democratic families, and yet the assumptions underlying MBK not only privilege males over females, but also elevate two parent families over single headed families and heterosexual couples over same-sex families.  President Obama's comment that “marrying a good woman...always helps” simply underscores why feminist, LGBT activists, and all those who seek to democratize our idea of family must lift their voices to insist on realigning MBK.

Some have suggested that the White House Council on Women and Girls launch a similar initiative for girls of color. Unfortunately, while MBK now has a public-private budget of $300 million and counting, the Council is not comparably resourced or structured to take on an initiative of this scale.   What’s more, the work of the Council reflects very little engagement with structural conditions that impact the lives of girls of color.  By contrast, MBK is built on years of foundation investment in men and boys. With the president’s involvement now and after he leaves office, it will have a continuing impact that will never be matched by the Council..

As the prior letters of the 200 Black men and 1,500+ women of color both emphasize, our objections should not be taken to suggest that we oppose all race- and gender-focused programs.  The Presidential Memorandum instructing various agencies to collect data on boys and men of color is a reasonable first step to considering how workable interventions can be scaled up to address their needs.  Yet the memorandum fails to mandate information gathering on women and girls of color, thereby projecting their erasure into the future. There can be no exceedingly persuasive rationale for this exclusion.

There is an irony in the Initiative’s gender exclusion that bears emphasizing. While the erasure and silencing women of color has been repeated throughout our history, women of color have long asserted that misogyny and white supremacy are inseparable.  These same women have shaped our society’s commitment to gender and racial justice and they have also been the most loyal voting base for this administration and this president.

That they should now be excluded from this Administration’s signature racial justice initiative cannot be the lasting legacy of this Presidency. Nor should social justice advocates otherwise committed to advancing equality continue to be silent in the face of such an indefensible exclusion.

It is time fundamentally to realign MBK to respond to the ways that race and gender intersect in the lives of girls as well as boys and young women and men. “What needs to be fixed are not boys per se, but the conditions in which marginalized communities of color must live.”

We respectfully ask that you speak out explicitly on behalf of girls of color, and reframe My Brothers Keeper to expressly include sisters. In addition, that government agencies directed to monitor the status of men and boys be instructed to also collect data on women and girls of color, and that corporate and philanthropic partners direct equitable support to girls and boys.