Athena Kugblenu considers the idea of role models as an answer to the problems of Britain’s black community, in response to the REACH programme.
First published on lucidpolitics.co.uk, May 2009
Politicians argue that it’s the absence of role models that make young black men vulnerable to crime and underachievement. If this assumption is correct, the appropriate solution would be to handpick role models to inspire the youth of today to reverse this trend. The government has done exactly this via its REACH project. Twenty black men have been nominated, vetted and recruited as examples of black accomplishment.
The REACH programme places the interests of young black men at its centre. The criteria for nomination was developed from a focus group with young black men and all candidates were assessed by 70 black males aged between 14 and 25 before interview. Championed by well known successful figures including entrepreneur, Tim Campbell and couturier, Ozwald Boateng, this chosen group has been tasked to go into schools and youth projects to talk about their personal journeys. They will eventually “help to build a much larger and wider programme of mentoring work in their regions and communities and work with national and local media to support young men in raising their levels of ambition.”
The National Role Models, as they are now officially known, vary in age and profession. The oldest is a 59 year old Chief Executive, the youngest is a 25 year old accountant. And their intentions are admirable. Michael Barrington Hibbert, Director of Ogders Select says, “My main motivation is to give back to the community. I have been very fortunate to have fantastic role models in my adult life and I would like to help to inspire young black men and let them know that, no matter what setbacks life throws at you, you can achieve anything.” TV reporter and army officer, Clive Lewis adds, “I know how difficult it can be to make your way through life as a black man. My father guided me. Not everyone is as fortunate – maybe that’s where I can help.”
REACH could be what black Britain has been waiting for. The impact of a successful adult black man on a young black male is not to be underestimated. Half of black children in this country are living in a single parent household, compared to 22 per cent of the white population. The majority of these households are led by single mothers. Simon Woolley, Director of Operation Black Vote, stresses that “when black fathers in broken families play little or no role in their children’s lives, positive male role models are crucial.”
Black sportsmen, musicians and criminals grace our media screens with ease and familiarity. Black politicians, intellectuals and high ranking officials do not. We have become almost impervious to bad press, so common it is in our newspapers, televisions and magazines. We then have to negotiate state-rooted messages, such as ones from civil servants who bother to add of up the cost of every black male that has “underachieved” to British society (£800 million per year).
Bearing this in mind, the influence of black men in positions many young people never imagine themselves to be can only be in positive. Positive, most definitely, but effective?
These National Role Models are meant to show young black men a different option to a life of underachievement. By setting out such a depressing stall in the first place we’re telling our young black men of the future that they are already on that downhill slope. Low expectations can be demeaning. Professor Ann Phoenix, whose research interests include the social identities of young people, argues that black children already grow up learning through the media that their parents are in a different position to their white counterparts. By being targeted by projects like REACH, they are encouraged to see themselves as second class citizens too.
Young black men do not live in a vacuum, separate from the rest of the country, with their own TV channels, schools, youth clubs and magazines. They are absorbing the same messages as the rest of the population, including people they will be educated and employed by. If the government is going to create projects to raise aspirations of black youth, where are the projects designed to raise the expectations these individuals have of black people?
Activist and Trident advisor Claudia Webbe responded to the initial report that proposed REACH by saying, “Where [the report] fails is the way it pathologises the black community and black young people in particular, by putting the blame for discrimination on black people or black culture.”
Hazel Blears, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, acknowledged the role of the media by introducing REACH with a speech full of moving observations, stating at one point, “sometimes, you turn on the telly and it seems you see three kinds of black men – musicians, sportsmen, and criminals. That portrayal is patronising. It’s lazy and it’s wrong.”
It is more lazy and wrong to address the influence this skew has on black men and not the influence it has on the people around them. Guardian columnist Gary Younge is right when he says, “all too often, role-modelling takes an individual who has done well, parades them in front of a group that is not doing so well, and says: “If you try hard enough, you too can do this […], what they have not been told is that the odds are heavily stacked against them and that, from a class of 30, maybe only one will make it.” The government is encouraging black men to see past the stereotypes and misconceptions but does nothing to even the playing field to ensure they will have the same opportunities and options as their counterparts.
The next flaw is with the definition of the problem itself. REACH has bought into the same media hype it wishes to counter. Black men are over-represented in the criminal justice system but the government itself, in a low key paper admits overrepresentation needs to be kept in perspective. Three years ago, of all 10 – 17 year olds involved in reported offences 84.7 per cent classed themselves as white. Even robbery, the crime of choice among Afro-Caribbean juveniles, is not as incriminating as it seems. The report states: “Robbery offences, for which young black people are particularly overrepresented, constitute only 1.8 per cent of juvenile offending. Robbery offences committed by black young people represent less than 0.5 per cent of all offences overall.”
Black communities all over the country have their problems. In 2008, 50 of the 89 teenagers killed in Britain were young black men. But time and time again, we belittle the social conditions that create such violence by blaming it all on colour and not culture. Gang culture is not a black problem, it is a British problem.
Young black men from inner-city areas hang around in gangs. Instead of being critical of this practice we should try to understand it. The urge to bond with peers is often irresistible. Bourdieu would argue that these young men are a product of their locale and bond based on shared ‘taste cultures’ and ‘class habitus.’ If the government wants to raise the aspirations of these groups, it needs to address the problems that bring them together in the first place. Poor housing, poor schooling and unemployment are state problems that require state solutions. Until these issues are addressed initiatives like REACH are futile in these environments.
The New Nation, a weekly newspaper for black Britons, pre-empted REACH with its own list of 100 black Britons in 2007. Its editor at the time, Michael Eboda, stressed the purpose of this list. “We were sick of people telling us that African-Caribbean people weren’t getting anywhere. We were tired of seeing the usual suspects rolled out every time the role model debate hit the news, and we were bored with the idea that the only black people on the planet who were doing anything constructive all lived on the other side of the Atlantic.”
Only one sportsman made their list. Didier Drogba was listed, not because he scored 30-odd goals for Chelsea that season, but for his efforts as a peacemaker in his homeland. He is credited with having been one of the biggest influences in ending the civil war that engulfed the Ivory Coast for years.
Of course, the tabloids saw little point in promoting the efforts of an African who can kick a ball to bring peace to his homeland. When you read about Drogba, you will read about diving, wealth and form in front of goal. The problem is not the domination of black people in sports and music but the limited manner in which they are presented to us. Remember Linford ‘lunchbox’ Christie? The media strips black stars of personality and leaves them reduced to how fast they can run, how much money they earn or how much controversy they cause.
Black people excel at sports and music. This is fact. Not because we have a natural predilection, but we experience fewer barriers in these industries. This is the fault of people who stop us achieving elsewhere.
REACH want our youth to stop looking up to sports and music stars. This is a tricky message to impose on impressionable young people. REACH would be better advised to help counter the narrow-minded way in which the media presents black celebrity and instead say to young people, “look at the discipline, ingenuity and fortitude they needed to become successful.”
Only one of the twenty National Role Models is self-made; the rest are in employment in institutions and organisations which any young man from Middle England would love to be a part of. Britain is still plagued by class sickness and we are coaxing black men into the same insecurities by giving such a narrow definition of success. The acute fields from which their role models are recruited support this. They are well dressed, well paid and organisational. There are no athletes, no creatives, no low incomes and no women. Government complaining about the preponderance of a certain kind of black professional in the media only serves to undermine any positive influence they could actually have. In our efforts to portray black people in a diverse way, we should be wary of only allowing a limited group to speak on our behalf. As playwright Bola Agbaje puts it: “I don’t think that we should limit black public speakers to people who work in Parliament, law firms or in ‘professional’ jobs, because they won’t represent all of our society.”
Finally, why the obsession with black men? You are just as unlikely to see a black female in any position of intellectual or influential power in the country. Black women are more likely to be heads of single parent households and three times more likely to live in rented accommodation. Black women are also more likely to live in homes that fall below minimum standards. Where is the government initiative to address this social trend?
Several of the National Role Models cite a lack of role models available for them when they were young and impressionable. I would argue any young man being fed, housed and clothed by a hard working single mother has a role model staring them in the face. There remains the underlying English idea that if you do not escape the roots of your class you have not achieved. This explains why hard working mothers are nowhere to be seen in this REACH project, or in any other initiative that tries to raise the aspirations of black boys.
A new approach is needed. For every single parent household in this country, nine of ten are headed by a single mother. It is not good enough for young black men across the country to be allowed to use absent fathers as an excuse for failure. REACH is perpetuating an idea about the necessity of male role models that can never realistically be met. Demand outstrips supply. Unless the twenty National Role Models are planning on filing a few thousand adoption papers, it is attitudes to life in general that’s going to have to change. Noel Clarke is a screenwriter, actor and director. His face is well known. He says, “you can’t make excuses for behaviour. I am sitting here today because I focused on what I want to do. I decided to make films, not smoke weed or do bad. You have to make things happen. There’s only so much you can go ‘everyone’s against me.’ It could be the case but do something about it.”
Young people, no matter their ethnicity, will be motivated, not by other people’s dreams, but their own, provided they have a fair chance and opportunity to get there. By marking black individuals as unique or exceptional, we make their achievements even more inaccessible. The “work hard and you’ll achieve” message sits precariously in a world where black youths make up the smallest percentage in any number of institutions. Oxbridge, banking, the media, politics – the list is endless.
We shouldn’t reward successful black men with recognition. We should be critical at the organisations that made them work twice as hard to get there. Our government uses programmes like this to acknowledge black people have prejudice to overcome, but still manages to find a solution that lays the blame wholly on the door of the black communities.
Role models should not be self appointed or selected by government. They should be recognised without championing and campaigns. One of the National Role Models is a fireman. Would a young white person accept this man for inspiration? If young black people do not now know they can grow up to be firemen, the solution is not with REACH. It is with the parents, teachers and youth workers we rely on to prepare our children for a life after schooling.
We should train our children to be wary of the media and teach them how to negotiate negative messages. They should not believe everything they read and witness. We should tell them there is nothing wrong with admiring musicians and athletes, as long as they realise the profile of these individuals derive from a repertory of power intent on defining ‘blackness’ and limiting our presence in the public sphere. We should reject the notion of black solutions for black problems. Our problems are British problems that require state-led solutions more complex that REACH could ever conceive.
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