Obama's Former Spiritual Advisor Joshua DuBois on The Fight for Black Men

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

There is an easy way to meet Joe Jones, and a hard way. Let's start with the easy way. If you and I were at a cocktail party, I'd introduce you to a tall, bald, black man, standing a shoulder above most everybody else. Knowing Joe Jones, he'd probably be wearing a tan suit and muted tie. Joe's subdued, square-rimmed glasses fit nicely with his veiled intellect—he's the kind of guy who readily drops six-dollar words without a hint of pretense.

I'd probably ask Joe to tell you about the nonprofit he runs, the Center for Urban Families on Baltimore's West Side. CFUF is a national model for helping men and women who are confronting addiction, poverty, and despair turn their lives around, and teaching absent fathers how to reconnect with their kids. Joe's a modest guy, so I'd have to brag on his behalf, about the bigwigs who have dropped by his center, and all the awards the organization has won.

Finally, I'd say in passing: "You know, Joe has a powerful personal story himself. His own father wasn't around, he struggled in the streets for a while, and then pulled himself up, and made it out." Nice and neat. Joe would nod and smile. You'd nod and smile. I'd nod and smile. We'd all be smiling—appropriately inspired.

That's the easy way to meet Joe Jones. But there's also the hard way. The hard way is to grapple with the fact that Joe's family didn't just emerge from some unseen ghetto thousands of miles away. No, his grandfather migrated to Baltimore from North Carolina, and started a business—a waste-management facility, one of the city's more successful ones. His grandparents were "models of stability," Joe told me. A few generations before that, Joe's family were slaves.

It's hard to figure out what happened to Joe's dad, and thousands of other black fathers like him. Joe's dad was training to be a teacher, but one day in the mid-'60s he hopped into the driver side of a Ford Thunderbird, visibly angry, slung his duffel bag on the passenger side, and drove off for good. Joe saw the whole thing from his upstairs window in the Lafayette Court housing projects; he thought his dad was going to the laundromat, and sat waiting for him, for hours.

After falling into addiction, Joe Jones turned his life around—and helps others to do the same.

It's tough to stomach what happened later. How Joe, an adorable kid of 13—never a smoker, never a drinker—met a guy a couple years older than him. And this person put it into Joe's young head that maybe it wouldn't be a bad thing to stick a needle in his arm, and let a bit of heroin rush in. So, as a 13-year-old, he did. Joe's two cousins shared the needle with him—their dad wasn't around either—and his best friend, Barry, also fatherless, did too.

So now Joe's an adolescent junkie, hanging out on Edmonson Avenue in West Baltimore and shooting up wherever he can find a shadow long enough to hide himself: sometimes in a bowling alley bathroom, sometimes in his aunt's basement. He was 14 when he was busted for the first time for using drugs, along with his two cousins and Barry. The other boys' parents bailed them out, thank God, but the police suggested that Joe, the ringleader, should stew for a little while to learn his lesson—you know, "tough on crime."

Turns out, this wasn't the best move for Joe. During his few extra days in jail, in the throes of heroin withdrawal that his young system wasn't handling well, Joe met a local kingpin who taught him how to be a more efficient junkie, and a more effective criminal. Or as Joe puts it now (in his always-impeccable phrasing): "This man created a pathway for me to negotiate the street environment in a way that I hadn't anticipated. It was the worst thing that could've happened to me."

“The Negro in America” series won Newsweek a National Magazine Award in 1968. Newsweek recycled its 1966 cover line “Black and White” in 2007 for Obama’s fifth appearance on the cover.

So in the span of a few years, Joe went from a stable household to a single-parent family. From a middle-school honor student to a street-corner addict. From the grandson of a businessman and great-great-great-grandson of slaves to the son of an absent father, and a future deadbeat dad himself. It was a jumble of inputs—bad parenting and bad policy, misguided culture and tragic history—resulting in one clear output: a woefully lost kid.

There is a lot more to Joe Jones's story—more pain than most can bear; more beauty than you'd expect. We'll get to all of that, including his fateful encounter with the president of the United States.

But first, a few words about the world Joe comes from: the world of low-income black men. Why talk about this world? After all, it's simple enough to ignore. We can safely tuck these men away in our inner cities and allow them to interact largely among themselves. We can rush past them in front of the gas station, murmur silently when the nightly news tells us of a shooting across town, or smile when we meet a nice, inspiring man like Joe. We can keep them in these places. It's safe and easy for us.

Yet if we're honest, we'll have to admit that when one single group of people is conspicuously left behind, it never bodes well for society as a whole. In many ways, black men in America are a walking gut check; we learn from them a lot about ourselves, how far we've really come as a country, and how much further we have to go.

I spent the past few months talking to dozens of experts who are working to address the crisis among black men. It was clear from these conversations that the reasons for this crisis are complex—as are the solutions. But it was also clear that the fight for black men, which is currently being waged by activists, politicians, celebrities, and everyday people alike, can indeed be won.

As with Joe Jones, it starts by understanding their history, and their stories.

DuBois Black Men
30 LEADERS IN THE FIGHT FOR BLACK MEN: Click the image to see author Joshua DuBois's list of activists, politicians, and writers who are working to change the future for African-American men. From left: Christopher Gregory/The New York Times/Redux,Walter McBride/WM Photography,Terrence Jennings/Picturegroup/AP,Chester Higgins Jr/The New York Times/Redux

THE EARLIEST chapter in that story is a tough one. I'd rather skip it. You'd rather that I skip it. But as Ralph Ellison once remarked, channeling Faulkner, our complicated racial past is "a part of the living present"; it's a past that "speaks even when no one wills to listen."

The facts are a bit overwhelming, but not in much dispute. Africans were imported to the United States as purchased goods beginning around 1620. By 1770, when Crispus Attucks, a free black man, spilled the first drop of blood in the cause of the American Revolution, nearly 18 percent of the American population—almost 700,000 people—were slaves. By the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, that number had exploded to over 4 million.

Beneath these sterile facts lay a grisly reality. Blacks were systemically dehumanized for hundreds of years, a practice that had unique social and psychological effects on men. They were worked and whipped in fields like cattle. Any semblance of pride, any cry for justice, any measure of genuine manhood was tortured, beaten, or sold out of them. Marriage was strictly prohibited. Most were forbidden from learning to read and write. The wealth derived from their labor—the massive wealth derived from cotton, our chief export throughout much of the 19th and early 20th centuries—was channeled elsewhere.

But, because slavery ended 150 years ago, we often assume that this dehumanization is ancient history. It is not. As Douglas Blackmon of The Wall Street Journal meticulously documents in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Slavery by Another Name, blacks were kept in virtual bondage through Jim Crow laws, sharecropping, and, quite often, a form of quasi-slavery called peonage, which endured well into the middle of the 20th century.

Here's how it worked: black men (it was usually men) were arrested for petty crimes or no crimes at all; "selling cotton after sunset" was a favorite charge. They were then assessed a steep fine. If they could not pay, they were imprisoned for long sentences and forced to work for free. This allowed savvy industrialists to replace thousands of slaves with thousands of convicts.

'Black men are the most incarcerated people on the planet ... warehoused in prison for nonviolent crimes.'

While some whites were caught up in this system, the forced labor camps were 80 to 90 percent populated by black men. This practice endured until 1948, when the federal criminal code was rewritten to helpfully clarify that the law forbade involuntary servitude.

Around that time, determined activists—from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Fannie Lou Hamer—organized to demand equal treatment. We know the civil rights story well: Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which overturned the separate-but-equal doctrine; the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed various forms of discrimination; and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which carved a clear path to the unfettered right to vote.

And that, we told black men, was that. Immediately following the civil rights movement, in the early 1970s, we assured these men, with fingers perhaps gently crossed behind our backs, that all the discrimination they had faced was behind them; that there would be no further barriers to opportunity, even unspoken ones; that it was time for them to wake up. Get a job. Get married, and start a family. Build wealth. Take hold of the American dream. We won't stop you—we promise.

We focused our social investments in this period—our brief War on Poverty—on women and children, because men were supposed to figure it out. But in the 1970s and 1980s, many of these black men didn't. Just like their great-grandfathers never fully figured out how to teach their sons about manhood while being lashed in a field. Just like their grandfathers never completely figured out how to pass on lessons about building wealth when theirs was stolen through peonage and sharecropping.

Their fathers tried to rally around Martin Luther King as a symbol of what they could be—but he was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. In the post–civil rights era, many of these black men, men like Joe Jones's father, weren't quite figuring it out either. And neither are many of their sons and grandsons, those bright if often scowling men we see on our streets.

The NYPD made arrests at protests for 16-year-old Kiki Gray, who was killed by police bullets. Eduardo Martinez/Reuters

Why not? The reasons are as complicated as the difficult history, and simple debates about government spending versus personal responsibility are woefully insufficient.

But one of the key reasons has to do with our criminal justice system. And it points the way toward one of the key solutions—perhaps the single most important thing government can do to help win the fight for black men.

No one has done more to shed light on this issue than Michelle Alexander. Alexander may be this century's Harriet Beecher Stowe, the storied author of Uncle Tom's Cabin about whom President Lincoln remarked, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this Great War?" But instead of making a war, Alexander wrote a book to end one.

Alexander was a young civil rights attorney working for the ACLU of California and trying to find a model plaintiff for a civil rights case against the Oakland Police Department, which at the time was rife with corruption. One day, a 19-year-old black man walked into her office, and he looked like the perfect case to prove that the Oakland PD had gone bad.

The man had been stopped and released dozens of times, for no reason at all. He had been forced to lie on the ground spread-eagle and been subjected to invasive searches, after which the police found nothing. And, important, he had taken meticulous notes of all this—every stop, every date, every badge number. "I was getting more and more excited," Alexander told me, "because I thought this was our plaintiff."

However, at the end of his presentation, the man shared one final fact: he had a felony record, having been busted for a drug offense years earlier and convicted as an adult. Alexander stopped him there. "I explained to him that I couldn't take his case," she told me. "It wouldn't be fair to him or to us. With his felony record he'd have no credibility on the witness stand; he'd be cross-examined about his past."

Alexander realized that the "war on drugs" had created what she calls a "permanent under-caste" of men convicted of drug offenses.

Alexander tried to explain to the young man that it wouldn't work out, but he pushed back in protest. He said that the conviction was for a minor offense, and that he'd just taken a plea deal to avoid more jail time. He said his past should have no bearing on the repeated abuse he had experienced.

But Alexander didn't budge, and eventually the young man had enough. Fighting back tears, he yelled at her, "You're no better than anyone else! The minute I tell you I have a criminal record, you stop listening. I can't get a job. I can't feed my family. Where am I supposed to sleep? How long am I supposed to pay for my record?"

The man stormed out in a huff, leaving Alexander stunned. At that point, something clicked with her, something that pulled together all of her prior experience in civil rights law and history. Alexander realized that, not unlike the peonage system in the early 20th century, the "war on drugs" had created what she calls a "permanent under-caste" of men convicted of drug offenses. Men who, even after their release from incarceration for relatively minor crimes, would never again be able to navigate the world on equal footing with the rest of us. Men like the young man she met but could not serve.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Morgan Norman/Gallery Stock

The full explanation of this permanent under-caste of black men and the devastation it has wrought is meticulously and powerfully delivered in The New Jim Crow—Alexander's book about the war on drugs, which was on The New York Times bestseller list for nearly a year and today can be found in the hands of decision makers across the country, from federal courtrooms to the halls of Congress. In the book, she describes the ramp-up of criminal-justice spending in the 1980s as the result of an intentional political strategy rather than a reasoned law enforcement response. The result has been the mass incarceration of African-Americans, mostly men, with little connection to actual rates of crime.

Alexander shows that there are more African-Americans in the corrections system today—in prison or on probation or parole—than there were enslaved in 1850. As of 2004, more black men were denied the right to vote because of a criminal record than in 1870, when the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, giving blacks the right to vote. In the three decades since the war on drugs began, the U.S. prison population has exploded from 300,000 to more than 2 million people, giving our country the highest incarceration rate in the world—higher than Russia, China, and other regimes we consider repressive. A significant majority of black men in some urban areas are labeled felons for life; in and around Chicago, when you include prisoners, that number approaches 80 percent.

But isn't this just a function of more crime in black communities? Aren't we arresting violent super-predators, the type we see on television? Alexander makes clear: in most communities, the answer is no.

'We're in the best of times and worst of times, at the same time,' says the Rev. Al Sharpton.

"It has nothing to do with crime rates," she told me. "Crime rates have fluctuated over time—we're currently at historic lows—but incarceration rates have consistently soared." People of color are arrested in large numbers for relatively minor offenses—four out of five drug arrests in 2005 were for possession, not sales—and then given sentences that outpace their white counterparts. In fact, in the 1990s, when the war on drugs was at its peak, almost 80 percent of the increase in drug arrests was for possession of marijuana.

The result of all of this is the "under-caste," an apt if cringe-worthy term describing the massive numbers of black men who cannot access housing, who are screened out of employment, and who in many states are denied the right to vote. Facing severely limited options and few opportunities for rehabilitation, millions of these men re-offend, creating more victims in our communities and landing themselves back in jail.

These men are increasingly isolated from the rest of America—including from middle-class African-Americans. As the Rev. Al Sharpton, the nationally known civil rights activist and founder of the National Action Network, told me in an interview, "We're in the best of times and worst of times, at the same time." "It's the best-time times," Sharpton continued, "because we have a black president, black attorney general, black CEOs. But it's the worst of times because millions of African-American men are being locked up and left out like never before."

Job training, instead of mass incarceration, would undoubtedly benefit urban communities. Alex Wong/Getty

Ben Jealous, the president of the NAACP, agrees. In an interview, Jealous declared to me that "black men are the most incarcerated people on the planet … warehoused in prison for nonviolent crimes that two decades ago would have resulted in little to no jail time."

But Jealous is also hopeful. The NAACP is going state by state, attaching practical solutions to Alexander's thesis. And because of strained prison budgets and concern about bloated government, they are finding receptive audiences not just among liberals but among conservatives too. For example, they are presently working with Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia, a Tea Party Republican, to, in Jealous's words, "make their prison system dramatically smaller." "Our allies on the right are beginning to think about criminal-justice reform," Jealous says. "They are finally getting beyond 'tough on crime' slogans, and actually focusing on what works."

In fact, bipartisan efforts on criminal-justice reform are growing. On the Democratic side, Attorney General Eric Holder has confronted the issue head on, spearheading an initiative to tackle youth violence and create new reentry programs for returning offenders, while working with Congress to reduce racial disparities in sentencing. He's been joined on the right by Republican Congressman Frank Wolf, who has taken a particular interest in "smart on crime" approaches, driven by his relationship with Prison Fellowship, an evangelical Christian organization that believes in giving second chances to people who've been incarcerated.

Daughters of incarcerated fathers were invited to a Date With Dad event at the Richmond City Jail. Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post/Getty

Meanwhile, from the halls of Congress to statehouses across the country, people are reading Michelle Alexander's book. On a recent afternoon, I drove to the office of U.S. Congressman Bobby Rush, sitting for an hour with this stalwart of the Congressional Black Caucus whose experience on the issue of black men in America spans from a stint in the Black Panther party to Christian pulpits to losing his own son to gun violence. Rush recently had a spat with a fellow Illinoisan, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, who made headlines recommending that Chicago spend $30 million more to lock up young gang members. "I sent him a copy of The New Jim Crow," Rush told me. "He promised me that he would read it."

IF MICHELLE Alexander is worried about black men's criminal records, John Hope Bryant is concerned with their wallets. "I believe that 99 percent of black leaders are digging in the wrong hole," Bryant told me. "If you're poor, your health care's going to suck, your housing is going to suck, your infrastructure is going to suck … if you're poor, everything sucks."

Bryant speaks like Martin Luther King on an auctioneer's stand—a frenetic ball of energy and ideas, seamlessly mixing civil rights maxims with financial advice at 100 miles an hour. He started his first business in Compton, California, at the age of 10, when the corner store in his neighborhood stopped selling the type of candy kids wanted. He opened up his own store in his mother's living room, and in three months was so successful that, in his words, "I put the corner store out of business."

Since then, Bryant has been convinced that the way out for black men is through a burgeoning bank account, not a social service program. "The whole world pivots on economic issues. If you don't solve that, you can't solve anything else," Bryant says. "But if you do solve that, you have a chance at solving everything else."

Bryant has put his money—and substantial energy—where his mouth is. He runs the largest network of financial literacy centers in the country—HOPE Financial Dignity Centers—which help low-income Americans access credit for small businesses, manage their budgets, open bank accounts, and purchase homes.

Like Michelle Alexander and others, Bryant is concerned with the mass incarceration of young black men but from a slightly different angle. "There's a very good chance that we're actually locking up the only potential we've got to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods in America," Bryant told me. "Drug dealers, gang organizers—they're all natural entrepreneurs. They get up early, they work late, they hustle—but they have misplaced values and terrible role models."

Bryant created the HOPE Business in a Box program to help troubled youth start, fund, and operate small businesses. He also thinks that black businessmen should help young black boys ditch the "rappers and ball players" that they currently hold up as role models, and look in a different direction for examples of success. "These young men are the best chance we have to create jobs and GDP in our neighborhoods," Bryant says, "if we can just get them back on the right track."

BRYANT'S EFFORT is just one of a growing number of innovative private and public programs that are making real inroads on this issue. Many of these initiatives are taking place under the umbrella of George Soros's Open Society Foundations, which has created a Campaign for Black Male Achievement and a Leadership and Sustainability Institute to knit together previously disparate programs for black men and boys, and help the field outlast funding from any one source. The effort is led by Shawn Dove, a burly man who speaks with a thick New York accent that has hints of all five boroughs at once. In fact, he's lived in all of them, but he cut his teeth mostly at 80th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.

It was on that corner that Dove sold loose joints as a teenager, teetering between a strict Jamaican household, where his single mother ruled with an iron fist, and the warm glow of New York evenings and the allure that hustling brings.

One day some friends invited Shawn to a basketball game on the Upper West Side, and he met a guy named John Simon, who ran a youth program called DOME (Developing Opportunities for Meaningful Education). Simon told Shawn that he had the potential for greatness if he would only focus. "I took him up on his offer," Shawn told me.

The Young Men's Initiative is about building a 'continuum of services,' including job training, mentoring, and male-friendly health care.

From there it was a fast track to Wesleyan University, a stint in the garment industry, and a career as a shining star among nonprofit executives in New York. But several years ago, Shawn received a call that would change his life.

It was from the Open Society Institute—now Open Society Foundations. They were looking for someone to start a project on low-income black men, and wondered if Shawn would be interested in the job. Shawn said yes, and six years later he has helped create an entire field of "black male achievement," an ecosystem of organizations, programs, and leaders with one straightforward if daunting goal: give low-income African-American men and boys an opportunity to succeed, a pathway to the American dream.

Under this umbrella is a Black Male Achievement Fellows Program, which supports social entrepreneurs in urban communities, in partnership with the Echoing Green Foundation. Then there is "BMe," a collection of thousands of video testimonials that allow black men to tell their story in their own voices. Dove's institute has also partnered with Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York on the Young Men's Initiative, a citywide effort to redirect black and Latino boys bound for prison to another path. Linda Gibbs, the deputy mayor of health and human services of New York, told me that the Young Men's Initiative is about building a "continuum of services," including job training, mentoring, and male-friendly health care to give troubled young men the best chance to succeed. In less than two years of running the program, Gibbs says they've seen a "dramatic reduction in the number of young men who are serving time," as well as a reduction in re-arrests. (The program has sparked a similar effort in other cities called Cities United—in which Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, Casey Family Programs, and the National League of Cities are leading participants.)

“Racism is the belief that there’s something wrong with black people … something in our bones.” Alex Wong/Getty

Dove has also convened other major funders—including William Bell of Casey and Robert Ross at the California Endowment—into a new Black Male Achievement Funders coalition, each with a different approach to a previously intractable problem. Ross, the California Endowment's president and a pediatrician from the South Bronx who took a three-month sabbatical to study the issue of young black men in America, focuses on behavioral health and education. The California Endowment is funding programs to close the achievement gap in third-grade reading scores and develop alternative approaches to suspension when dealing with troubled boys. "Overly harsh discipline and suspension marginalizes, stigmatizes, and criminalizes these boys," Ross told me. "When an African-American male in eighth grade has defiant behavior in the classroom, it's like seeing a burn on their body; we need to treat their behavior as evidence of a problem to be solved rather than a kid to lock up."

There's powerful work happening outside of Dove's network as well. For example, Michael Curtin, CEO of D.C. Central Kitchen, believes the food industry can help to empower black men and women. Since 1989, the kitchen has served over 25 million meals to low-income people in the D.C. area—but don't call it a food bank. Instead, Curtin, a former restaurateur, runs a rigorous culinary job-training program, using the process of meal preparation to help formerly homeless, addicted, and incarcerated men and women learn culinary skills and then find employment in the hospitality industry.

I visited D.C. Central Kitchen recently and saw lines of men and women who were previously on the streets chopping vegetables, barking orders, and managing a full-scale industrial operation. Curtin told me at the time, "When I look back on my personal experience, I recognized that I was incredibly fortunate—I had a phenomenal family, I grew up in safe communities, and went to good schools. I made reckless decisions, but always had someone there to put me back on track. Many of the men and women who come to us grew up in very different circumstances—when they messed up, they didn't have someone to help get them back on track. What we're trying to do at D.C. Central Kitchen is provide people with that opportunity."

THE FIGHT for black men is being waged through policy and programs, as the work of Shawn Dove and Michelle Alexander shows. But there's also a concurrent fight going on for their culture and soul—and in that battle, Ta-Nehisi Coates is at the forefront.

Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic, is a reluctant spokesman. He has shut down his Twitter account more than once. After penning several landmark columns for The New York Times, he declined the Times's offer of a permanent weekly slot. And he does not write solely, or even primarily, about race. His recent topics of interest range from the conflict in Syria to Kurt Vonnegut. He speaks fluent French, and analyzes the hit show Mad Men with gusto.

"Those triumphs over Southern segregation now seem suddenly pale against the shadows of poverty and despair in the ghetto," Newsweek wrote in its 1967 story "Which Way for the Negro Now?"

But try as he might, Coates cannot escape the mantle of leading cultural envoy. He writes in a way that's inherently viral, moving fast from black hands to white and then around the world. What Henry Louis Gates says about race painstakingly, like an intricate symphony, and Cornel West declares elliptically, like a Pentecostal preacher or alto saxophonist, Coates offers straight up, with just a splash of hip-hop as a chaser.

Consider his New York Times essay "The Good, Racist People," which summed up in nine paragraphs what black men have been trying to get off their chests for the last 30 years. Through personal stories, he cast racism in America as "invisible violence," perpetrated by well-meaning folks all around. Or his landmark piece for The Atlantic, "Fear of a Black President," about what he calls the "false promise and double standard of integration" in the era of President Obama.

Coates is at the fulcrum of a resurgent cultural conversation about black men, one that is advancing in a number of sectors. There is the painter Kehinde Wiley, who mixes classical techniques with contemporary subjects to create stunning portraits of blacks in America. There are rappers like Lupe Fiasco and Kendrick Lamar, who are using their lyrics to put new spins on old truths. In sports, Miami Heat great Dwyane Wade has teamed up with a cast of unlikely characters—including Grammy Award–winning artist Lecrae and conservative funder Foster Friess—to launch the "This Is Fatherhood" challenge, which encourages young people around the country, and particularly black men, to tell stories of what fatherhood means to them. In film, the talent agent Tamara Houston has launched a new organization, ICON MANN, to create a space for Hollywood's leading black male actors to learn from one another and project their values to the world.

But Coates is in many ways this movement's biographer. In an interview, he told me that the goal of his writing is not to "fix" race relations in America. "I have folks who write me and want me to help out with their racist uncle; I don't want any part of that," he said with light-hearted sarcasm. But when pushed, he admitted that he does see himself as "an agent in pursuit of the truth of this country, of which I'm a citizen, in which I was raised, which I love." "I want to understand it," he continued. "I want to explore it, and make that exploration as honest as I can."

'My job,' says Coates, 'is to help close the gap between what they see in us and who we actually are.'

I asked Coates about the best way to help black men who are struggling, and he didn't point to a particular program. Instead, he said, "If there's one thing that's missing in our country, it's an acknowledgment of the broad humanity of black folks. Racism—and anti-black racism in particular—is the belief that there's something wrong with black people … and I mean something in our bones." He continued, "In our own community, we've internalized this. We wonder if we lack moral courage."

"I want the country to understand that there's nothing wrong with us," Coates says, with urgency in his voice. "Things have happened in this country, but there's nothing wrong with us. My job is to help close the gap between what they see in us and who we actually are."

"WHO WE actually are." It took Joe Jones about two decades to figure that out. That's how long he was strung out—after his dad pulled off in the Thunderbird, his mom went away to work, and he made a series of bad decisions on Edmonson Avenue; after jail made him more of a criminal and a junkie, not less. By 1986, Joe was spending $800 to $900 a day on a mixture of heroin and crack.

There were some bright moments—the birth of his son, a job at the Social Security Administration. But in one way or another, they all were deflated, pricked by the same needle that he regularly thrust into his arm.

Finally, facing a five-year prison sentence for drug possession, Joe argued and cajoled his way into an in-patient treatment program instead. He told me: "There was a six-month wait for the program, but I knew I needed to get in now. The only way you could get in was if you were crazy, so I acted as crazy as I could."

Renowned educator Geoffrey Canada says kids need to be listened to. Eric Thayer/Reuters

It worked. And from the moment he got serious treatment, things kept working for Joe. I asked him how it all came together, and he told me it was pretty simple: people listened to him, got to know him, and they liked him.

There was the staff at the treatment center who grew to know Joe Jones as not just an addict but a man, "counselors and therapists who could help me understand why I did the things that I did."

There was the dean at Baltimore City Community College, who admitted Joe despite his criminal record. He and Joe became so close that Joe ended up counseling the dean when the dean's son was struggling with his own drug addiction. Joe graduated from the college with an accounting degree, at the top of his class. There was also the young woman Joe met in the financial aid office at this community college—she liked him so much that she later became his wife.

This phenomenon of knowing, and liking, was repeated over and over in my interviews with experts on troubled youth. As Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone—our country's go-to model for turning around tough neighborhoods—told me, "First you have to know them, and then you have to like them, enough to respect what they're going through but not accept responses that may be inappropriate."

Canada continued, "You really do have to like them. Boys, when they're threatened and angry, they act out in ways that make them difficult to deal with. They can become threatening, sullen, disrespectful. They learn to be frightening as a defense mechanism in the environments they have to navigate."

Obama's relationship with his father—years of absence and brief flickers of presence—is one of the defining aspects of his life.

"When you don't like them," he said, "those are reasons to get rid of them—to put them out of programs, put them out of schools, to call the police to deal with them, lock them up. But when they're kids that you actually know, and actually like, they will listen to you, and you will listen to them. And that's where change starts."

A few people got to know Joe Jones, and then like him. And his life changed. Joe entered a series of nonprofit jobs, from HIV counseling to health care, and eventually began working for the Baltimore Health Department. He persuaded the city of Baltimore to start a fatherhood program, along with programs on maternal and child health. These efforts were so successful that the mayor of Baltimore at the time, Kurt Schmoke, helped Joe spin them off into a larger, independent organization, which became the Center for Urban Families, the organization that Joe runs today.

At CFUF, Joe uses evidenced-based models to help the same types of men and women he grew up around. Funded in part by Shawn Dove's campaign, Joe's center has a successful job-training program, including partnerships with major Baltimore employers. They have a fatherhood program that gives dads practical skills to reconnect with their kids and pay back child support. Joe also wrote state legislation called "Couples Advancing Together"; it's based on a simple but powerful idea that low-income men and women who are romantically involved should develop life plans and financial goals together. Social programs focusing on job training and financial literacy have traditionally served these couples separately, instead of acknowledging that their goals and life plans are inherently intertwined. Joe's couples-services concept has the potential to dramatically change how these programs work; it passed the Maryland legislature in April and was signed into law by Gov. Martin O'Malley in May.

We may be “locking up the only potential we’ve got to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods. ” Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

And a few weeks ago, something special happened. The man who perhaps most radically symbolizes both the hope of black men in America and the challenges from which they spring stopped by to see Joe Jones. President Obama, himself a product of a single-parent household, visited the Center for Urban Families to say hello to Joe and the men he serves. Obama met with employers, people being trained for jobs, and dads getting back on track. His remarks were private, candid, and—based on accounts from those in attendance—had quite an impact on a bunch of guys from West Baltimore who were struggling to make it by.

Later that same weekend, Obama traveled to Morehouse College in Atlanta to deliver a speech to the black male graduates there. He was to talk about fatherhood and responsibility, and what African-American men must do to compete in the world. But in one brief, unscripted moment at Morehouse, the two dichotomized worlds of black men—Joe's new one and his old one; the soaring heights of the presidency and the depths of the streets—briefly and powerfully collided.

I had been a small part of the planning process for the speech. Obama's relationship with his father—years of absence and brief flickers of presence—is one of the defining aspects of his life. While I grew up with a strong and supportive stepfather, my own biological father had a beautiful, tragic, and deeply complicated story—a black man who received a Ph.D. from Cornell University, and ended his life in a federal penitentiary in North Carolina. Out of this common set of experiences, I worked for years with the president on his fatherhood initiative, an effort to help absent fathers around the country get back on the right track.

I had the text in front of me as Obama was delivering the speech. So it came as a surprise when, as the president neared his close, something pulled him away from the prepared remarks. He was supposed to be moving to a final story about one of the graduates, but instead started talking about men who had been left behind. I have to imagine he was picturing men like those he saw at the Center for Urban Families, men like those he had known his whole life. Men like Joe.

"Whatever success I have achieved," the president said, "whatever positions of leadership I have held have depended less on Ivy League degrees or SAT scores or GPAs, and have instead been due to that sense of connection and empathy—the special obligation I felt, as a black man like you, to help those who need it most, people who didn't have the opportunities that I had."

He continued, "Because there but for the grace of God go I. I might have been in their shoes. I might have been in prison"—a jarring thing to hear from the president of the United States. "I might have been unemployed. I might not have been able to support a family. And that motivates me …"

Obama's voice faded off into a trail of emotion and applause, and he returned to the text. But the point was made.

We have walked a winding road with black men in this country, with no small amount of pain and tears along the way. But all Americans have walked that road together. Our connection to each other is, as James Baldwin once said of the relationship between blacks and whites, "far deeper and more passionate than any of us like to think." And it's that connection, that empathy, that "there but for the grace of God go I" mentality, that must motivate our society's efforts on behalf of low-income black men. Because our history, our present circumstance, and our humanity demand it. Because there are boys walking the streets of this country with the brightest of futures—the next Shawn Dove, the next Joe Jones, the next Barack Obama—if only they were given a shot.