Young, gifted and black: Meet Britain's rising stars

Hardly a week goes by without another example of our nation's (often subtle) prejudices hitting the news. But, with so many bright young talents, you can't keep the black out of the Union Jack...
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The Independent Online

Not a day goes by when I am not asked by some young black person what they should do and how they should succeed in a culture which appears closed to them, a culture which takes as read that they have been poorly educated, and that their ambitions are low. Because it's these and myriad other assumptions about young black people in the UK today that shape the reality of their lives.

Take, for instance, the recent furore surrounding the views apparently expressed by the biologist James Watson. Rather than die the death that they deserved, Watson's comments about the supposed differences between African and Western European intelligence quotients made the headlines, wrecked his lecture tour of the UK and led to his retirement from the role of chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. Watson's was a mistaken assumption exposed in the media on the largest scale.

But black Britons find themselves the victims of more subtle, coded assumptions on a daily basis. Vivienne Westwood drew our attention to one recently: that black models don't sell fashion. Westwood, no fiery activist on behalf of equality, stated that she is so outraged by the lack of black images in fashion that she believes the only remedy is to establish a quota (to emphasise her point, she plans to use a Kenyan model in her next campaign).

Here's another assumption with particular relevance for young black Britain: I have taught Shakespeare in places such as Brixton, the London borough of Brent, and various inner-city areas, and I have never dumbed it down – I just taught it and the students had no problem. But when I taught this technique at a teacher-training college, several student teachers asked me why I was teaching Shakespeare to students in Brixton. I confess, I did not understand the question. Then my friend, a Grenadian-born writer and teacher, explained to me that the real question was why we are teaching them something that will be of no use to pupils who will end up as shelf-stackers and low-grade office workers.

Such horror stories abound in black Britain, some grimly funny. One actor friend of mine was cast in a television programme that called for his character to be an officer. ' He got the part, but then the director decided the audience would not accept a black man at that rank, so suggested that he become a sergeant instead. He was unaware that my friend is the public school-educated son of an officer who grew up on military bases around the world. He is now joining the growing troupe of black actors emigrating to America because they can't work here.

Unconscious and not-so-unconscious judgements are denying young black Britons the equality they deserve. Ultimately, they also deny the rest of us the cornucopia of black talent on offer and available to the arts, the media, design, sport, fashion, business and other fields. As we can see from the following pages, there is a plentiful supply of such talent – so why is the demand for it so low?

Good intentions are not hard to find: I find myself going back and forth to so many commissions aimed at increasing the presence of ethnic minorities in public life that I bump into myself. These are usually created and administered by people dedicated to diversity and inclusion, but they never seem to get to the seat of power, where the real problem is. I think there are two reasons for this: one is the English addiction to class; the other is a deep loathing of the city and urban life. Both stem from "Angleterre profonde", that deep, inner England that lies beneath our society's surface.

Let's face it, class is the gorilla in the drawing room. These days, it is seldom raised directly as an issue; instead, it has morphed into terms of denigration such as "chav", "hoodie" or "inner city". And if class still pervades English society, there is, therefore, a "black class", to which all black people are deemed to belong. This class is assigned certain attributes by those outside it, the worst of which are reserved for young black men, who are seen as dangerous and untrustworthy. One of the reasons that black boys have the largest rate of school exclusion in proportion to their numbers is that people are afraid of them, afraid of the way they dress, the way they socialise, even of their build and speech patterns. (As a member of the black American sub-class within the "black class", I get let in on a few secrets such as that.) I need hardly say that this sort of attitude on the part of a teacher creates the very situation that alienates and destroys young minds.

These young black students become the victims of the education system. In 2004, only 27 per cent of "black Caribbean" boys and 44 per cent of "black Caribbean" girls got five or more A* to C grades at GCSE, as against 47 per cent of white British boys and 56 per cent of white British girls. Should a young black person manage to attain the grades to get into university, class rears its ugly head again. Black applicants are still less likely to apply successfully with the same or better grades as their white peers. You see, they don't quite "fit in".

When I was invited to speak at the Oxford Union three years ago, I was struck by the portraits of past presidents on the walls, many of whom had risen to eminence in their chosen fields, and by the boys and girls filing in, just as their mummies and daddies had done when they were students there before them. I spent that evening with a very nice group of people, and I know that even this privileged community has changed. Nevertheless, it was scary to realise that this nation is still made up of clubs, and that the first club is birth.

Clubs beget clubs. Take at the other end of the social scale, the wayward young black men on our city streets. These "soljahs" see themselves as focused, disciplined, reserving their allegiance for no one but their group. Ignore the criminal element and what do you have? An exclusive club, one that is presenting us with a wake-up call: these young men will no longer accept invisibility. We must find ways of talking with and listening to them.

As the MP David Lammy, himself a successful example of young, gifted and black Britain, states: "Unless those at the top make their sectors more accessible to the diverse skill pool, and less accessible via the old school-tie route, I think we will continue to see too much young inner-city talent wasted. I look around Tottenham and I see the amount of potential that is right there, waiting to be harnessed, and stiving to succeed. It's there, ready and waiting."

The other relevant feature of "Angleterre profonde" is its mistrust of the city. The city in English life is perceived as the place you go to work and then flee; but, because we black people have no rural roots in this country, we are eminently urban. Almost two-thirds of the black community live in urban areas in London, Bradford, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham. Yet the urbanity of the black British community reflects the rapid urbanisation of the rest of the world. The city ways and urban accents of young black men and women in particular point us to the future.

As it is, we won't have much choice. The average age in the UK in this country is 39.6, and growing older. But the black demographic is on average younger. In London, where half the black population live, 40 per cent of children under the age of five have one non-white parent. By what label will these children call themselves? What will be available for them? How will they reconfigure the world?

I grew up in America and was educated in the era of affirmative action. This government directive literally opened the door for black people in the arts, business, education – every walk of life. Affirmative action, for instance, made it the norm to see a black person reading the news at prime time, or indeed a black presidential candidate. But I'm not sure that this is the way for the UK.

Instead, "localism" may provide an answer here. In future, big, one-size-fits-all government programmes will give way in favour of the expertise within the black community. Businesses must look to the dynamic, entrepreneurial spirit that exists in the young black community, and encourage and reward it. And that spirit exists in abundance because, largely through necessity, young black people have created their own businesses and their own cultural organisations. The black community also has in place some interesting local solutions: "supplementary" schools, youth groups, work-experience, apprenticeships. But they struggle to get adequate public and private support. Organisations such as the Windsor Fellowship, which trains young black people and other ethnic minorities to be the leaders of tomorrow, go begging. We allow this to happen at our peril. We must make an environment for the young black computer genius who told me recently that he was moving to Vienna because he could get no decent work in Britain.

Yes, we live in challenging times, in which black British children and young people are excluded from the fruits of society, and we may do so for some time. But there are other stories too, as the profiles on the following pages attest. By 2020 I believe that, with demographics, belief, ideas, creativity and entrepreneurship on its side, there will come a black generation that won't be denied. That renaissance starts here.

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