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Obama says "powerlessness" behind protests across U.S.

President Obama speaks during the launch of a nonprofit group, My Brother's Keeper Alliance at Lehman College in the Bronx borough on May 4, 2015 in New York City.

Spencer Platt, Getty Images

President Obama said Monday that a "sense of unfairness and powerlessness" has helped the fuel protests in places like Baltimore, Ferguson, Missouri and New York that have occurred after the deaths of black men at the hands of police.

"By almost every measure, the life chances of the average young man of color is worse than his peers. Those opportunity gaps begin early, often at birth, and they compound over time, becoming harder and harder to bridge, making too many young men and women feel like no matter how hard they try, they may never achieve their dreams," Mr. Obama said. "And that sense of unfairness and of powerlessness, of people not hearing their voices, that's helped fuel some of the protests we've seen in places like Baltimore and Ferguson and right here in New York.

The president added that that the protests were catalyzed by "a feeling that law is not always applied evenly in this country," and said that statistics show men and boys who are black and Latino are treated differently in law enforcement stops, arrests, charges and incarcerations.

The president spoke at Lehman College in New York City for the launch of the My Brother's Keeper Alliance, a nonprofit foundation that will build on a federal initiative he launched last year.

Mr. Obama launched the "My Brother's Keeper" initiative in 2014 in an effort to help unlock the potential of young men and boys of color, particularly those who were at risk of falling out of school and the workforce. When he unveiled the White House's efforts last year, Mr. Obama said, "I could see myself" in the young men from a Chicago-based youth guidance group who were standing beside him.

The federal initiative was modeled after local initiatives partnering governments, local businesses and foundations that connect young men with mentoring networks and help them cultivate skills to get ahead. The president established a task force to identify the most successful public and private efforts.

The new nonprofit alliance bearing the same name piggybacks on that mission and seeks to close the opportunity and achievement gap for boys and young men of color with interventions from community, private and social enterprise partners throughout their entire lives.

The White House says that as many as 25 percent of African American and Hispanic men between the ages of 16 and 24 can be considered "disconnected," meaning they are neither in school nor unemployed. One such young man can cost society nearly $1 million over his lifetime, they note.

Mr. Obama said at the launch that, "America's future depends on us caring about this."

"There are consequences to inaction, there are consequences to indifference, and they reverberate far beyond the walls of the projects, the borders of the barrio the roads of the reservation. They sap us of our strength as a nation. It means we're not as good as we could be," he said.

The companies and community partners involved in the alliance will support programs that are aimed at encouraging boys and young men of color to hit six benchmarks: entering school ready to learn, reading at grade level by third grade, graduating from high school ready for college and a career, finishing post-secondary education or job training, successfully entering the workforce, and reducing violence and providing a second chance. Each benchmark is aimed at a specific time period in life, except for reducing violence and providing a second chance, which is described as being a lifelong target.

Various business leaders, entertainers, nonprofits and current and former government officials have already put together over $80 million in commitments. The alliance will develop a comprehensive guide for private sector involvement, disperse up to $7 million in grants to programs and organizations with proven intervention programs, and create a $15 to $25 million grant competition that will give up to nine communities $3 million grants to build local infrastructure and capacity.

Mr. Obama talked about his strong identification with these young men and their life experiences.

"In every community in America there are young people with incredible drive and talent and they just don't have the same kinds of chances that somebody like me had. They're just as talented as me, just as smart, but they don't get a chance," he said.

"I grew up without a dad. I grew up lost sometimes and adrift, not having a sense of a clear path. The only difference between me and a lot of the other young men in this neighborhood and all across the country is that I grew up in an environment that was a little more forgiving. And at some critical points, I had some people who cared enough about me to give me a second chance or a third chance or give me a little guidance when I needed it. Or to open up a door that might otherwise have been closed."

He said that addressing these issues, "will remain a mission for me and Michelle not just for the rest of my presidency but for the rest of my life."

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.