WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Thursday launched his "My Brother's Keeper" initiative, urging stronger efforts to create more opportunities for young minority men and to improve conditions that keep them impoverished and imprisoned in disproportionate numbers.
Obama said these young men consistently do worse in society, with odds stacked against them. "By almost every measure the group that's facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century in this country are boys and young men of color," Obama said, ticking off statistics on fatherhood, literacy, crime and poverty.
"We assume this is an inevitable part of American life instead of the outrage that it is," Obama said, to applause.
He said there have been improvements — "My presence is a testament to that progress," Obama said. But he said more must be done because it's a moral and economic issue facing the country.
Obama spoke from the White House East Room flanked by teenagers involved in the Becoming a Man program to help at-risk boys in his hometown of Chicago. He said he sees himself in them.
"I made bad choices. I got high, not always thinking about the harm 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.
Under Obama's initiative, businesses, foundations and community groups would coordinate their investments to come up with, or support, programs that keep youths in school and out of the criminal justice system, while improving their access to higher education. Several foundations pledged at least $200 million over five years to promote that goal.
Meanwhile, Obama signed a presidential memorandum creating a government-wide task force to evaluate the effectiveness of various approaches, so that federal and local governments, community groups and businesses will have best practices to follow in the future. An online "What Works" portal will provide public access to data about programs that improve outcomes for young minority men.
Valerie Jarrett, a senior White House adviser, said Thursday marks the start of an effort that the president and first lady Michelle Obama plan to undertake "for the rest of their lives."
"That's a moral, social responsibility that they feel will transcend the time that he's president," Jarrett said.
Obama's pledge to take action came during his State of the Union address last month, when he warned that young, black men face "especially tough odds to stay on track and reach their full potential." Obama himself grew up in a single-parent household, and has said he and some members of his staff were challenged and tempted by the same societal ills plaguing younger generations of minority males.
The White House listed a litany of facts showing the need for the effort: The unemployment rate for African-American men over the age of 20 was 12 percent last month, compared with 5.4 percent for white men. Hispanic men over the age of 20 faced an unemployment rate of 8.2 percent. The U.S. Census Bureau showed a poverty rate of 27.2 percent in black households and 25.6 percent for Hispanic households in 2012, compared with 12.7 percent in white and 11.7 percent in Asian households.
Those already working to better the lives of young minority men called Thursday's announcement an "unprecedented moment," to have the White House publicly allied with their cause.
"The president of the United States has never taken a stand suggesting that our nation mobilize its resources to improve opportunity for this population," said Gail C. Christopher, vice president of program strategy at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which focuses its resources on vulnerable children who face poverty and discrimination.
The phrase "my brother's keeper" comes from the book of Genesis in the Bible, where God asks Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, for the location of his brother Abel, who Cain had killed. In some versions, Cain replies: "Am I my brother's keeper?" Obama has quoted those Bible verses several times during his presidency, saying Americans should look out for each other.
Freed from the pressure of seeking re-election, Obama also has taken a more visible role on issues affecting minorities.
The president, who famously said — "I'm not the president of black America. I'm the president of the United States of America" — has moved to commute sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, hoping to combat sentencing disparities that disproportionately imprison minorities. His attorney general, Eric Holder, this month encouraged states to repeal laws that permanently bar felons from voting even after they have served their sentences. And Obama identified personally with the issue last year when he declared, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, that Trayvon Martin, the black teenager killed in an encounter with Zimmerman in Florida, "could have been me 35 years ago."
The White House has been strongly criticized by some civil rights leaders for not using the presidential bully pulpit to do enough to address generations of disadvantage borne by the African-American community. But things are changing, said NAACP Interim President Lorraine Miller, who along with other civil rights groups met with the president in the White House last week.
"I think he's looking at a more strategic way how he can make an impact in the African-American community (not only) with employment but with health care and all the kind of issues we face every day," said NAACP Interim President Lorraine Miller in response to a question from The Associated Press on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers."
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report. Follow Jesse J. Holland on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jessejholland