Am I My Brother’s Keeper?
Posted on February 28, 2014
As the President announced a new program targeted directly at helping black and Hispanic youth, he spoke in personal terms about how smoked he pot and screwed around as a kid.
Talk about mixed messages.
Barack Obama didn’t exactly adhere to the straight and narrow as a young adult and he seemed to turn out all right. Same with Jay-Z and Puff Daddy and my favorite role model, Snoop Doggy Dog.
We all take our own path to success.
If you come from a tough neighborhood, you succeed by being tougher than anybody else.
If you come from a Yuppie neighborhood, you succeed by making the most money.
If your parents raised you in a University town, you succeed by how fast you get your PhD.
One kid’s geek is another kid’s idol. A thug to one person is a role model to another.
And so it goes.
I was struck by the President’s use of language to announce this new program. My Brother’s Keeper, Mr. Obama calls it.
That was the question that Cain asked God, when God asked Cain where his brother Abel was.
“I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asked.
A question for the Ages. Am I my brother’s keeper?
In my mind, that passage from Genesis always blurs with the parable of the Prodigal Son.
The Prodigal Son leaves home and blows all of his inheritance on wine, women and song (and who knows what else), while his older brother tills the fields, harvests the hay, and basically does all that his father asks of him.
But when the Prodigal son comes home, after being lost, the father throws a huge party for him, and cooks up the fatted calf.
The older son asks the question, quite rightly, what about me?
Where’s my party? Where’s my fatted calf? My brother is a goof while I am working my ass off here, and he gets a party and I get squat.
To this frustration, the father says, “Hey, I hear you, but Jr. here was lost, and now he is found. He was dead and now he is alive. He has been redeemed. So, let’s have a party."
Brothers are interesting beings. Sibling rivalry has been around since Genesis.
Are we our brother’s keeper?
The question asked of God was rhetorical for Cain, because clearly he knew the answer. After all, he killed his brother.
What made him kill his brother? Rage? Jealousy? Anger? Who knows? But we do know that when God asked him a direct question, he lied. He misdirected. He asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?
Mr. Obama, at his press event, portrayed himself as the Prodigal Son. Yep, I screwed around. I got high. I had anger issues.
But don’t do what I did.
Don’t get high (although the Justice Department is no longer enforcing those laws). Don’t get mad (although this program is not aimed at all young men, just young black and Hispanic men, which further enforces the idea that they have special issues). Don’t screw around (although our Hollywood culture celebrates screwing around).
Don’t do what I did. Do what I say.
Sometimes I think that the current polarization we have in our society stretches back to Genesis, with a brief stop in the New Testament.
We are a society of Prodigal Sons and unhappy Big Brothers. And all too often, we have Cains running around killing Abels.
Are we our Brother’s keeper?
Mr. Obama invited both Bill O’Reilly and Al Sharpton to his event yesterday, clearly trying to make it bipartisan in nature, although O’Reilly and Sharpton aren’t exactly blood brothers.
According to one analyst:
“The program itself aims to pool resources of the federal government and also raise money and create new initiatives through businesses and foundations to target black and Latino males. After the event, Obama signed a formal order to start an administration-wide search for ideas and programs for minority men. And administration officials say a group of foundations and businesses, including the National Basketball Association, have pledged to raise $200 million for this initiative, which will not involve a large allocation of funds from the federal government.”
It’s unlikely that the President is going to get much funding from the Federal government, given that the U.S. Treasury is pretty much broke, so I think it is a good thing that the private sector is stepping up.
I am not sure it makes sense for this program to target only black and Hispanic young men. If we are all brothers, we can all learn a lot together, no matter what your skin color.
Spike Lee let slip out the other day how much he resents it when he sees white people in his neighborhood. This is what he told a radio program the other day:
“Here’s the thing: I grew up here in Fort Greene. I grew up here in New York. It’s changed. And why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better? The garbage wasn’t picked up every (expletive) day when I was living in 165 Washington Park. P.S. 20 was not good. P.S. 11. Rothschild 294. The police weren’t around. When you see white mothers pushing their babies in strollers, three o’clock in the morning on 125th Street, that must tell you something.”
So, Spike Lee, friend of Obama (and of Al Sharpton) resents the fact that things get better when white people show up. Whose fault is that? Would he want things to stay dangerous, for the trash not to get picked up for the schools to stink?
There is plenty of racism on both sides of the equation.
If we are going to be successful breaking down barriers and getting us all to be our brother’s keeper, we should probably avoid putting people into racial silos. We should understand that the people who play by the rules and do all the hard work to keep this society afloat resent all of those Prodigal Sons out there who have a grand time partying until their checks bounce and credit cards exceed their spending limit.
That resentment has a long Biblical tradition.