Young men, step up the Obama's challenge

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ASSOCIATED PRESS Obama speaks with Christian Champagne, 18, a senior in Chicago.

ON THURSDAY afternoon, two couples sat stoically in a White House audience filled with those working to change the lives of black and Latino boys.

That the parents of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, two boys whose shooting deaths outraged a nation, could reach through their grief to take in President Obama's vision for saving other sons speaks to their resilience. More importantly, it speaks volumes to all of us.

It speaks to the fact that Obama's new initiative for boys of color, "My Brother's Keeper," will require much more than the $200 million-plus foundations will spend to effect change. It speaks to the fact that we must commit to something much deeper than money.

We need commitment by parents to be present in the lives of their children. We need commitment by the media to cover images that move beyond stereotypes. We need commitment by our political representatives to set aside their ideological banners and pick up the mantle of leadership. Most of all, we need commitment from boys of color to live up to the standard of excellence, rather than living down to the code of the streets.

We all share the blame for the quandary facing boys of color, because most of us have watched silently as the statistics have piled up against them.

Consider this: One of two black boys and one of four Latino boys grows up fatherless, which makes them far more likely to be poor. Boys of color are more likely than their white counterparts to be suspended or expelled from school. This leads to higher dropout rates, which leads to higher incarceration rates, and ultimately leads to an adulthood in which they are less likely to participate in the workforce.

"We've become numb to these statistics," Obama said after reciting them at his news conference. "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."

I believe that numbness to be true, but I also believe that there is outrage around the issue. Unfortunately, our outrage is directed at those on the other side of the racial divide from ourselves.

For too long, we have sat on our respective sides, lobbing hateful hyperbole over a wall of cultural animus. We have been so busy placing blame on one another that we have refused to act, even as our boys have fallen victim to the scourge of low expectations. This must change, and the change must come from all of us.

But, amid the sea of bad news and seemingly insurmountable numbers, there is good news. Many boys of color are already succeeding despite what the statistics might say. I know this, not only because I have worked with such young men in Philadelphia's public schools. I know because I was one of them.

Growing up in a community that was flooded with drugs, I eventually chose to use them, became homeless because of them and nearly lost my life in the process. But against all odds, I was able to lean on faith, family and the one thing the drugs couldn't take - education.

I turned my love of writing into a career, married a beautiful woman and began to raise a family with her. In 18 years, I haven't looked back, and my story is not unique.

Just as President Obama overcame the mistakes of drug use and apathy, and put away the anger he harbored because of his absent father, our boys can rise. Just as White House staffer Maurice Owens overcame a tough Bronx upbringing with the help of a mother who pushed him to succeed, our boys can rise. Just as the amazing men I've met through the Black Male Engagement campaign work every day to improve communities through their work, our boys can rise.

And every day, under every circumstance, despite every obstacle, boys of color continue to achieve. But if we are to improve the chances of other boys, we will have to look beyond those examples, and look to the examples of those who continue to push for change, even in the face of great loss.

Because you see, Obama was right when he said that boys of color are not just their parents' children. They belong to all of us. That's why the parents of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis are our greatest example. They work to improve the lives of other sons. They continue to strive despite their grief. They stand up for young men who are not their own.

If Obama's initiative is to succeed, the rest of us must follow their example.


Solomon Jones is the author of 10 books. His column normally appears Tuesdays in the Daily News.