After years of proclaiming his policies are color-blind, President Obama is establishing a program Thursday specifically to help young black men, whose fortunes have worsened since he took office.
Mr. Obama will outline at the White House the creation of “My Brother’s Keeper,” an initiative that will bring together foundations, businesses, churches, nonprofits and government agencies to help young men of color, in the president’s words, to “stay on track and reach their full potential.”
Blacks who have sometimes complained that Mr. Obama isn’t helping their community say the attention is badly needed. Critics say it’s little more than a ploy to spur black voter turnout in November.
“This year is an election year, and the Democrats are in serious trouble,” said the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, a conservative black minister in Los Angeles. “Whenever they are desperate to maintain power or gain even more power, they bring in the race issue. And that’s what this is all about. They want to pretend that they’re reaching out to black Americans right now.”
Even some of Mr. Obama’s strongest supporters say the president’s emphasis on creating jobs and raising the minimum wage will probably also help to boost voter turnout in the midterm elections. The Rev. Al Sharpton, a frequent visitor at the White House, said after a meeting with Mr. Obama last week that blacks remain in the president’s corner in spite of statistics showing they are falling behind.
“Is there frustration? Yes,” Mr. Sharpton said. “But a lot of it is directed at a Congress that refuses to deal with any of the agenda. Jobs and the minimum wage will drive an unusual turnout this year. Jobs and a livable wage will be a surprising factor in the turnout that you’re going to see in this mid-term election.”
There’s ample reason for blacks’ frustration. Black unemployment, which stood at 12.7 percent when Mr. Obama became president, had dropped slightly to 12.1 percent last month after reaching a high of 16.7 percent in September 2011. The national jobless rate in January was 6.6 percent.
But as with the overall population, many blacks have simply stopped looking for work. In December, the labor force participation rate for blacks dropped to 60.2 percent, the lowest since 1977. The rate for black men fell to 65.6 percent, that group’s lowest level on record.
For black teens, the situation is worse. The unemployment rate for black teens rose in January to 38 percent, up from 35.5 percent in December. The overall jobless rate for teens in January was 21 percent. The unemployment rate for black teenagers hit a high of 39.3 percent in July 2012.
The unemployment rate for Hispanics in January was 8.4 percent.
In Mr. Obama’s hometown of Chicago, 92 percent of black male teens don’t have a job, according to the Chicago Urban League.
The president’s push to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour would benefit primarily teenaged workers, a majority of whom are paid the minimum wage. Nationally, only 2 percent of employees fall into that category.
Among those in attendance at the White House on Thursday will be several young black males who participate in “Becoming a Man,” a program run by a Chicago nonprofit for at-risk youth in the public schools. The president met teens from the group last year during a stop in the city.
Until now, the president has seemingly gone out of his way to portray his economic policies as helping all Americans, not just those of a particular ethnic background. When Mr. Obama has singled out the black community, he has been more likely to receive blowback from blacks for being a “scold,” as with an address he gave last May at Moorehouse College.