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President Obama: Unrest fueled by 'sense of unfairness'

President Barack Obama addresses students and public officials

President Barack Obama addresses students and public officials at Lehman College in the Bronx on the launch of "My Brother's Keeper Alliance" on Monday, May 4, 2015. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

President Barack Obama in a speech in the Bronx Monday said that unrest from Baltimore to Ferguson to New York City has been fueled in part by a "sense of unfairness and of powerlessness" among young men of color.

Mentors, support groups and opportunities in education and employment can make all the difference, he said.

"By almost every measure, the life chances of the average young man of color is worse than his peers," Obama said at Lehman College in the West Bronx. "Those opportunity gaps begin early -- often at birth -- and they compound over time."

The president launched the My Brother's Keeper Alliance, an independent nonprofit that folds private-sector funding and leadership into the initiative he began in February 2014 in the wake of the death of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager in Sanford, Florida. My Brother's Keeper's original aim was to start a national conversation and connect young men of color to support networks. Obama, the nation's first black president, said he and his family plan to contribute to the initiative long after he leaves office.

The alliance, with chief executives of Fortune 500 companies, musicians and professional athletes among its members, has $80 million in corporate commitments for grants and the development of a "playbook" to guide its work. Its goals include increasing the high school graduation rates of young men of color by 20 percent. Joe Echevarria, former CEO of the Deloitte accounting firm, serves as the alliance's interim CEO, and musician John Legend is honorary chairman.

Obama, Echevarria and Legend led a roundtable discussion with about a dozen high school and college students, who shared stories of growing up in "single-parent households, low-income communities, crime-infested areas," the president said after the discussion. Some had been stopped by police "for no reason," he said.

The role of police in young men's lives came up again in Obama's speech before the audience of about 180 people.

"The catalyst of those protests were the tragic deaths of young men and a feeling that law is not always applied evenly in this country," Obama said of demonstrations nationwide against police-involved violence.

A task force that Obama started on community policing, which puts cops in touch with activists, recognized "that the overwhelming majority of police officers are good and honest and fair, and care deeply about their communities," Obama said, adding that slain NYPD Officer Brian Moore, who died Monday after being shot in the line of duty Saturday, and others like him deserve the nation's gratitude.

But the problem goes beyond troubled police-community relations, the president said, citing rampant unemployment and languishing schools as other factors in young men's struggles.

"Early childhood education works. Job apprenticeship programs work," Obama said. Keeping young men of color in the workforce and out of jails would benefit the entire nation economically, he said.

In the audience Monday were leaders of color including Rep. Charles Rangel, a Democrat who represents Manhattan and the Bronx; Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz; former Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning; and entrepreneur Daymond John, of "Shark Tank" fame.

Obama spoke directly to those whom the initiative had not yet reached toward the end of his speech.

"I want you to know you matter. You matter to us. You matter to each other," he said. "There's nothing, not a single thing, that's more important to the future of America than whether you and young people all across this country can achieve their dreams."The president's visit to New York City also included a taping of David Letterman's "Late Show," a Democratic National Committee fundraiser and a DNC roundtable at private residences.

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