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Monday, 18 October 2010

Without role models, black youth is prey to underworld culture?

When I was growing up in south London there was a lot of talk about 'no-go areas', the streets my parents said weren't safe for black boys. They were worried about racism and potential racist attacks. When Stephen Lawrence was killed in 1993 in Eltham, less than a mile from where my younger brother went to school, their worst fears seemed justified. Now I'm the father of a young boy and wonder if their fears belonged to a different generation. Is it my own community that presents the real threat? This year there has been an unprecedented wave of teenage killings, 17 gang-related murders in London alone. In 2007 barely a fortnight has gone by without the heartbreaking news of another young life cut short after a stabbing or shooting. Most of the victims were black, and so were the perpetrators.
I still live in south London, next door to Brixton, often described as the 'heart of Britain's black community'. I love the area because it is so vibrant and diverse, but the deprivation is obvious.
There are too many tough estates and boarded-up shops; my local off-licence is designed like a prison cell, a mesh grill separates customers from staff. The notion of 'white flight', middle-class families fleeing the inner cities for better (ie whiter, more affluent areas) used to make my blood boil; now I wonder if I will be living here in 10 years' time.
Five decades of racism and social injustice have taken their toll. The statistics tell a depressing story about black male crime, unemployment, academic achievement and mental health problems. But racism is not enough to explain what is going wrong and debate within the black community is beginning to accept this. That's why Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey has become the voice of black social conservatives preaching traditional values and family cohesion. No one is going to argue against strong familial networks, but I don't think that is the right response.
There is an old African saying that 'It takes a village to raise a child'. Although the black diaspora in Britain is so broad it is hard to talk about a coherent 'black community', traditional African and Caribbean culture is characterised by large extended families, in which relatives and friends share the burden of raising children. This, indeed, was how I was raised.
It has been hard to recreate that supportive network in a strange land, though some immigrant communities have managed it successfully. There are too many fractured black families, in which fathers play little or no role in the upbringing of their children. Whether we like it or not, family separation is a fact of 21st-century life, but that doesn't have to mean children have to grow up in neglect. When I was young my father used to annoy me by saying that I would have to work much harder than my white peers to succeed. Given the struggles black boys face today, they need more support than ever before if they are to have a chance.
Over the past few years I have met a number of vulnerable boys as a mentor and then a counsellor in north London. I have seen courageous parents striving to do the best for their children in very difficult, sometimes impossible, situations.
The rise of racing driver Lewis Hamilton, a mixed-race child from separated parents, is a success story and has again sparked talk of black role models. But the dedication and talent that has led to Hamilton's Formula One victories means he is a sporting hero rather than a role model, because few children can hope to emulate him. He is a shining beacon of achievement, but black children should look closer to home for inspiration. It's not just absentee fathers who have to take more responsibility; everyone in our community has a role to play.
It is too easy to trot out the usual excuses. As distasteful as I find the misogyny and violence in some rap lyrics, it represents and, of course, glorifies unsavoury aspects of urban culture. But listening to gangsta rap doesn't send a teenager on to the streets of London looking for trouble. As widely reported last week, the pressure to join violent gangs can be intolerable, and it seems the leadership and sense of belonging they provide have enabled them to step into a dangerous vacuum at the heart of the community.
From my experience, we have to be alert to children falling foul of those peer pressures from an early age. By the time a boy has started secondary school it might be too late to divert him from the wrong path.
Recently the importance of early intervention has led to creation of Sure Start and various mentoring and role model schemes across the country. There is more understanding of how things can go wrong in a boy's life, especially during adolescence. But we have a long way to go.
This recent spate of deaths is a tragic reminder that we have plenty to do if we want to safeguard the next generation of black children. It's a shame it has taken the loss of so many young lives to get our full attention.

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