Last week I witnessed the escalating controversy over Obama’s initiative for boys and young men of color, My Brother’s Keeper, particularly the recent article by Dani McClain in The Nation. I’ve followed the Twitter hashtag #WhyWeCantWait, and resonated with the many voices -- both male and female --insisting that the struggles of girls and young women deserve support as well. I’ve been inspired by the open letter to President Obama from over 200 African American men demanding that the needs of women and girls should be of equal importance.
And yet, in this historical moment, I would support an initiative that targeted resources toward boys first and foremost, provided, of course, that it shifted from Obama’s vision of upward mobility to helping boys to unlearn misogyny.
Girls and young women of color are besieged with both racism and sexism, every day, from every angle. As a result, female-centered resources are often designed to help them survive, endure, recover, build resiliency, avoid the traps of, bounce back from, and succeed in spite of misogyny, much of it coming from men of color, both their peers and their elders. And yet, as Dr. Britney Cooper points out, in spite of this fact, African American women, like other women of color, are consistently strong supporters, caregivers, and allies for men in our communities. “Black women always ride for brothers. Always. Even when you become the POTUS & fix your face to tell us we don't matter. We love you still.”
But that commitment is not reciprocated. Cooper notes in her Salon article that black women are Obama’s single largest voting demographic at 96%, but "have been the subject of no executive orders, no White House initiatives and no pieces of progressive legislation.”
What a difference it would make for young women of color if a massive infusion of resources was poured into our communities to help young men stop acting out the learned patterns of male domination toward the women and girls in their lives. The current plan is to invest in boys to become more resilient in the face of racism. What type of impact would it make if the resources were used to eliminate male domination so young women and men could build strong alliances and fight racism together? The vulnerabilities of young men -- incarceration, drug abuse, sexual irresponsibility, and all types of violence -- often stem from the unhealthy ideas of manhood that are tied up in misogyny. What if we worked on pulling out that thread? Would the whole fabric fall apart? Ending sexism would not only transform the lives of women of color, but it would transform men’s lives, as well.
I was deeply moved by the men in the open letter who asserted that “the denunciation of male privilege, sexism and rape culture [must be] at the center of our quest for racial justice.” They conclude the letter by stating that “if the nation chooses to ‘save’ only Black males from a house on fire, we will have walked away from a set of problems that we will be compelled to return to when we finally realize the raging fire has consumed the Black women and girls we left behind.”
The analogy of a house on fire is powerful, yet imperfect. So often in the lives of young women of color, their male counterparts are the ones lighting the kerosene. To be clear, I’m not blaming young men of color for the existence of patriarchy, or saying that they are more sexist than young white men. The particular brand of patriarchy we live under is utterly entwined with and co-evolved alongside white supremacy.
Yet, for women of color, it is men of color who bring male domination home to most of us. Gender violence is the most intimate of violence, and in a society that is still largely segregated, men more frequently target women from their own racial group. Also, in a racist society, men of color are offered the opportunity to dominate women of color as a consolation prize for their lack of real political, social, and economic power in the larger world.
Unfortunately, unlearning misogyny is not in the center of the President’s initiative. The goal is “to address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color and ensure that all young people can reach their full potential.” Apparently, their full potential is defined as follows: “To find a good job or go to college and work their way into the middle class.”
First of all, the math doesn’t work. If all young people reach their "full potential” and get into the middle class, it won’t be the middle anymore. The very existence of a class in the middle is predicated on having classes of people above and below.
Furthermore, higher education is in terrible crisis. Policymakers need to stop reinforcing the myth that a college education is a guarantee of upward mobility. I teach at an elite university, and every day I see millennials of all races who graduate and can’t get jobs. This is disproportionately true for millennials of color. If my well-spoken and well-connected white students with UC Berkeley degrees can’t get jobs, then there’s more than an opportunity crisis facing young men of color from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. There’s a larger economic crisis that must be addressed to help all young people.
At this point, as opposed to a middle-class dream, it would be wonderful progress for all families of color to be in the working class making a living wage. But this would require challenging the way corporations do business, and how workers are treated. This would require an economic vision that interrupts the consolidation of wealth at the top and creates more meaningful work opportunities for new workers entering the job market. Labor leaders advocate for raising the minimum wage: According to Sarah Kendzior in The New York Times, if you adjust for inflation, the minimum wage was 24% higher 50 years ago.
Part of the vision of helping young men enter the middle class implies a certain benign male head-of-household vision. If we uplift the men, then they will bring “their women” along, perhaps through marriage. So while young men of color are being encouraged to get their college degrees, maybe women of color can pursue Mrs. degrees? This strategy seems more invested in the politics of respectability than effective policies.
Furthermore, I think it’s important to note how misogyny and sexist policies undermine women’s ability to hold onto middle-class status once we achieve it. Lack of access to paid family leave and affordable quality childcare leaves mothers of all colors economically vulnerable. Women who divorce or separate from male partners after having children experience a vicious drop in economic quality of life.
What good is it to raise the current generation of boys of color out of poverty (as if this initiative could) only to see the next generation of sons of single moms and struggling two-parent families slip back down? Just today, the White House Council on Women and Girls, the Department of Labor (DOL), and the Center for American Progress (CAP) are hosting a Summit on Working Families. Organizations for women, labor, and others have been live-tweeting all day, including Feministing’s Chart of the Day which details The Many Ways the Us Fails Working Families. The Economic Policy Institute tweeted “Increasing the minimum wage would help #familiessucceed by giving 4.7 million moms a raise.”
And sexist economic policies have multiple negative effects on the lives of women and young people. For example, the economics of motherhood can pressure women with children to stay in unhealthy or abusive marriages. Even most women in reasonably healthy marriages with high-earning husbands are negatively impacted under the current system. Recent opt in/opt out debates for middle-class women staying home or continuing their careers show that the world of work penalizes most mothers for either choice. These are just a few examples of how increasing opportunity without interrupting misogyny is short-sighted.
So I agree that young boys and men of color do need to be the focus of a massive initiative, but that would be to end misogyny. Over a century of organizing for women’s rights has created a complicated, decentralized, diverse, powerful, messy feminist movement filled with contradictions, rivalries, solidarities, rage, wit, and love. Men’s organizing needs to catch up. While there are worthwhile efforts, like The Good Men Project, we see a range of disheartening examples -- from openly misogynist demands for Men’s Rights to myriad examples where supposedly feminist men reveal their practices of male domination.
A new generation needs to emerge to lead men out of misogyny. Why not start with young men of color? They are the ones getting the fewest advantages from male domination.
All men are impacted by the violence against their mothers, sisters, partners, and female friends. Ultimately, in a male-dominated society, everybody loses. Men dominate each other and make each other’s lives miserable. Homophobia keeps straight men isolated and queer men targeted. I support prioritizing anti-misogyny efforts focused on young men of color, because it’s more effective to intervene with the agents of oppression than the targets.
It’s much easier to get girls to see the dangers of male domination. Once aware, many of them become eager to uproot it within themselves and fight against it in the larger society. With boys, it’s harder to uproot because there are so many “perks” of being in the privileged group. Yet men’s investment in misogyny is held in place just as much by terror and shame. Young men of color have difficulty divesting from misogyny for fear it will make them seem weak, and weakness is too dangerous to reveal.
To return to the burning house analogy, if misogyny were the fire, it’s as if the boys are taking smug selfies as their clothes are starting to ignite, convincing each other with nervous laughter that only a punk would run out of the house.