(CNN) — The President has a message for young minority men who grew up like he did.
“No excuses. Government, and private sector, and philanthropy, and all the faith communities, we all have a responsibility to help provide you the tools you need. We’ve got to help you knock down some of the barriers that you experience,” he said.
“But you’ve got responsibilities too. And I know you can meet the challenge, many of you already are, if you make the effort.”
President Barack Obama spoke Thursday at the White House, where he announced “My Brother’s Keeper” — a new initiative to help young men and boys of color succeed.
He described the program as one that “goes to the very heart of why I ran for President” and dove into his own life to explain why such an initiative is needed, speaking candidly about his father, drugs and race.
A White House official said Obama improvised a good portion of his remarks and was more emotional than many planners of the event had anticipated.
“I didn’t have a dad in the house, and I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short,” the President said.
He compared himself to young men now who are growing up like he did.
“The only difference is that I grew up in an environment that was a little bit more forgiving. So when I made a mistake, the consequences were not as severe,” the President said.
“I had people who encouraged me, not just my mom and grandparents, but wonderful teachers and community leaders. And they pushed me to work hard, and study hard, and make the most of myself. And if I didn’t listen, they said it again. And if I didn’t listen, they said it a third time — and they would give me second chances and third chances.
“They never gave up on me, and so I didn’t give up on myself.”
The new initiative will look at what’s already being done to assist young men of color across the country and build on best practices.
It’s brought together foundations and businesses to pledge at least $200 million over the next five years, on top of the $150 million they have already invested.
Every child deserves the same chances he had, Obama said.
“This is an issue of national importance. It’s as important as any issue that I work on. It’s an issue that goes to the very heart of why I ran for President, because if America stands for anything, it stands for the idea of opportunity for everybody.
“The notion that no matter who you are, or where you came from, or the circumstances into which you are born, if you work hard, if you take responsibility, then you can make it in this country,” the President said.
Helping young minority men have the opportunity to get ahead, he said, is an economic as well as a “moral issue.”
“It doesn’t take that much, but it takes more than we’re doing now,” Obama said.
‘Numb to statistics’
The President cited alarming statistics to drive home his point.
“By almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century, in this country, are boys and young men of color,” he said.
Obama noted that if you’re African-American, there’s about a one in two chance you grew up without a father in the house. If you’re Latino, you have about a one in four chance.
As a black student, you’re less likely that a white student to read proficiently by the fourth grade and far more likely to be suspended or expelled by the time you reach high school, he said.
You’re also more likely to wind up in the criminal justice system and as a victim as a violent crime.
“The worst part is we’ve become numb to these statistics. 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,” the President said.
“But these statistics should break our hearts, and they should compel us to act.”
CNN’s Jim Acosta contributed to this report.
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