Young, black and British: The young men who refuse to bow to the stereotypes

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The Independent Online

Lewis Hamilton recently became the world motor-racing champ and the nation rejoiced. What an inspiration they said, the youngest man to win Formula 1. And a black man at that. (In truth he is "mixed race", like Barack Obama. But for many it's a specious distinction. Black pride holds the two men aloft, it lays claim to them.) It is a rare moment of affirmation for men and boys who racially identify with these heroes. They are momentarily free to breathe and imagine. How weary they are, bearing the burdens of collective blame, struggling against low societal expectations, and having daily to tear off the wounding tags stuck on to young males whose features reveal an African ancestry.

Chris Wilson, 45, an educationalist who has had stunning success getting young black children into top academic institutions, feels their pain. "It is very demoralising," he says, "because there is an exaggeration of negative stereotypes, an over-dramatisation."

Shaun Bailey, the prospective Tory parliamentary candidate for Hammersmith, says: "We are represented in the media horribly. Only terrorists are represented as badly. We are shown as sexy, dangerous and exotic. We are either guilty or victims, and if we are victims it is at another black man's hand. You've got entire TV channels set up to celebrate everything that is bad in our community. I despair. These portrayals make black men believe that's what they are."

The press is often no better. Newspapers circulate negative stories about young black men. It sells the papers. And when a group feels put upon, it will behave worse. So the papers run more stories. The young, gifted and black have become young, bitter and black, partly because they cannot bear the degeneration of their own, partly because they are almost expected to follow this destiny.

The journalist Joseph Harker knows these embedded (and unjust) values well: "The stories write themselves. We cannot ignore the fact that of 27 teenagers killed this year in London, 24 were black. But there is a racial dimension to the reporting. If the victim is black, it must be gangs, so move on – it's been explained. If it's [a white teenager such as] Ben Kinsella or Rob Knox, the thinking is: Gosh this could happen to any of 'us'. White fatalities get three times as much coverage as black fatalities."

Nineteen-year-old Aashreil James from Chapeltown in Leeds studies music. "It's kind of depressing to be honest," he says. "A black youth will get killed and straightaway it will be drug-related. It makes me think, if I was to die tomorrow, would the media or police tell my mum that it was gang-related even though I'm not involved in gangs?"

RD, who is 18, admits he has knifed kids in his time. For him, the media drama after a gang killing is like "Diana's funeral, man. Makes us feel big. Those flowers and candles and people crying. It's like the best film. Sometimes I just want to go out there and do something big. Then I think of my mum and know that I won't any more..."

RD's mum is the archetypal strong, hard-working, lone Caribbean mother. A midwife, she has a daughter who is training to be a physiotherapist and the lad who gives her grief. "I don't know where he's going to end up, this boy. He's only 18 and he likes to hurt. He nearly died once when someone went for him with broken glass. Twenty-three stitches on his arm. Last year he tried to knife me and I nearly called the police. If I did, he would be finished and end up like the rest – in and out of prison. His sister won't live with us no more. Then he cries like a baby." We're sitting in the living room; RD is listening and hugging a cushion, and looks slightly ashamed. But he doesn't contradict his mum.

The comedian and actor Richard Blackwood, who is 36, believes that to blame only the messengers is denial. "To a degree, media representations are accurate," he argues. "Not 100 per cent true but I don't like it when my race tries to act as if there isn't a problem. We black people know what our demons are."

Noel Clarke, the screenwriter of the critically acclaimed film Kidulthood, is equally candid. "These kids have been demonised," he says, "but at the same time you can't make excuses for their 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 got 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."

Accomplished black men cannot, it seems, just sit back and enjoy personal success. The lot of the rest matters too much and they care; they have to. Their emotional engagement with their race is remarkable, unique. Meanwhile, the tragic rise of lethal stabbings and fatal shootings among their own is at its nadir. Figures from the Crime and Justice survey show that in total only 7 per cent of youngsters commit crime – and of them a small percentage is violent. But black and mixed-race males start early, kill and die too young – some only 11 years old. The options are stark as young men are either "badmen" or "Bounties" (acting white).

Zaiben Hunter, who is 15, and Justin Austin, 14, go to secondary schools in Harringay. They are at that critical junction, deciding. "Shotting" (selling drugs) and robbing people would reward them quicker than going through the education system and conforming to society. Justin admits he has been tempted, but has held back: "It's like everyone is doing it and it is kind of exciting as well. If you have a 'badman' friend, you feel protected."

Both boys say their families keep them on the right track: "They don't want me to get involved in those sorts of things. If we were to go against them it would be like committing treason against yourself," says Zaiben. But it isn't easy, argues Justin. "Your personality changes depending on who you are with. If you are with someone who says they want a new phone and they are going to go out robbing today, your mindset automatically changes."

We tried to talk to some residents on an estate in west London. They rushed away and a posse warned us off – youngsters, tense and volatile, whose orders felt like razor cuts. One, a hoodie, followed Yasmin to the waiting minicab. His disembodied voice was just breaking: "What the fuck? Don't know what you're messin' with. Come back, come on and you're dead, Paki." All these urban cowboys were black or mixed race.

The cab driver exploded with racist abuse: "Those black bastards are all the same, all criminals, half-mad druggies. Never pick them up. Why do you want to talk to them?"

Travel on public transport and you see how people shrink away from kids and young males who have Afro hair and dark skins. It even happens to the suave Labour minister David Lammy: "On the rare occasions when I am not working and I'm on the street," he reports, "I too experience somebody crossing the road because they think I am carrying a knife."

One white (former) activist used to lead marches against police brutality through Deptford and ran a youth club when he believed it was possible to have faith in redemption. No longer: "They're psychos," he now says. "Know nothing, want everything, no brain, all body and blades – Mad Max aliens. They don't care about anyone, not even their mums." They, them, those, the whole lot damned. As ever when it comes to race, crimes committed by individuals and groups always become part of a generic pathology, a racial characteristic, pre-destination.

Imagine how it feels, then, to be a goodie not a hoodie, one of the many who strive to do their best for themselves and society. Prejudices stalk them, relentlessly, as do enticements to join the wild side.

Samuel, who is 20, got his A-levels, a place at Bristol University to study English, and wanted to be a writer. He was beaten up almost every week on his way to and from school. He had no mates among the local black kids in Peckham and suffered a breakdown. But he picked himself up and will be going to an American university next year. "You can dream those dreams there," he says.

Here, it seems, they pull you down, or try to. Aml Ameen, 23, the actor who made his mark on The Bill, still gets pigeonholed: "One of the red tops – they interviewed me. They angled certain questions on my life, asked if I had ever been in trouble with the police? No. Grown up in a kind of gang culture? No. They wanted a certain kind of 'violin story', a damaging story that's not my life. So they didn't print the story."

With all the attention going to the bad guys, the good guys must feel like giving up. What's more, the highest achievers, says academic Ken Monrose, find barriers: "Avenues are blocked for black men to express themselves," he says, "so they look for alternatives and adopt that."

That blockage can happen early. Chuka Umunna, a charismatic 30-year-old lawyer and prospective Labour candidate, was written off at eight. His parents were told their child would not pass his GCSEs and that university was not an option. His mother sent him off to a fee-paying school. Umunna knows he was lucky. "That inequality of opportunity – I understood that early. I made good, but a disproportionate number of young black males do not."

The system is still loaded against them, says Chris Wilson, the educationalist: "Certain stereotypes are hard to break," he reports. "We have teachers who will not write references for children applying for Oxbridge."

However, more possibilities are opening up for black men; they use the internet, talk to the world and will not be held down. Not for ever.

At 25, Reggie Yates is a successful TV presenter. He is pumped full of confidence, doing it his way: "If you continue to ask for handouts," he says, "things won't change. Start to stand up for ourselves, things happen. Failure for me is not an option. I have to succeed. I had to work my arse off to get here."

It's the same for Aml, who, like many others, wants to pass on the message. Success brings burdens, personal and communal: "I don't want a friggin' handout. We need to up our IQ. I want to feel I earnt my way, so I can stand up as a man. I work hard, diligently. We are psychologically chained." It is never easy to break the chains.

How do women feel about their male counterparts? Laura Pembele, who is 22, wants to be a surgeon. Her views are unexpectedly harsh: "A lot of them are involved in gun crime, knife crime. Troublesome. There aren't a lot of good black role models out there. They're just players, thinking about girls, drinking, cars, never settling down or giving back to society. Even the guys at uni – they think it is OK to get a third-class degree." With kith and kin like this what chance do the lads have?

Bianca Gill, who is 22, is more understanding: "It is unfortunate that a lot of black men are seen as ignorant, aggressive, cheating ... nine times out of 10 they aspire to be like that because they think that's what women want from them." And many black women go for this type of swaggering male – like Elmina, 21, a budding actress and the moll of successive gangsters: "I like the tough ones. They make you feel like a real woman, because they won't take nothing." Two men fought over her three years ago and one lost his eye.

Corrine DaCosta, who is 22 and a new mum, believes this is "one of the main reasons that these black guys go round shooting each other. It's usually down to a girl. My ex-boyfriend's best mate got into a fight with a guy over a girl. He ended up in prison for murder because of it."

The world out there for young people in general encourages the fast life, observes Richard Blackwood. "We are all turned on by power, as are these kids. It's just that they don't have the ethics behind it. It's power without the instruction manual. We are in trouble with this generation because they already have it in their minds that they should be respected for all the wrong reasons."

The lack of consistent and joint parenting is a persistent problem. Aml is convinced that makes a difference: "I lived in Hackney for the first years of my life and my dad did his fuckin' job to get us out of that environment that he could see was becoming volatile," he says. "He did his job as a man and I am forever grateful for that." Fifty-nine per cent of Caribbean boys, says David Lammy, are raised by lone mothers. "It's tough – my mum did that. We have the notion of 'babyfathers', as if it is normal to have children with three or four different women. Fatherhood and masculinity is an issue for our community."

Andre McKenzie, who is 22, is a tutor to young kids who are about to be expelled from school. Recently a father, Andre's experience of growing up without one has clearly had an impact on his new role.

"Most young black guys haven't got their dads around," he says. "I don't want my son at 14 years old to think that daddy doesn't want to know. I know how it can go wrong very quickly, so it has made me more determined to always be in his life. Growing up without my dad, there are times when I think to myself, could things have been different if my dad had been around?"

Asked why there are so many black absent fathers, Andre pins it down to priorities. "In their eyes they have better things to do. They don't appreciate the blessing that they have, running around with other women thinking that is what is important. It's a big responsibility, but for me, it is worth it."

Single dad Martin, a 51-year-old criminologist, didn't meet his own father until he was 31: "Am I truly over it? I have probably found a coping strategy, but I am still psychologically affected by that absence. There are a variety of reasons why fathers aren't there – death, prison, health, emotional indifference. I got a focus group of 12 young black offenders in Feltham to do a survey on their number-one issue. It was fatherhood. Not black history, not education, but fatherhood. Father deficit, it leaves a hole, sets up a series of needs that need to be satisfied, hence gang culture – the extended family."

Ken Monrose, whose PhD was on black masculinity, is sure that "beyond the misogyny, the aggression, there are many other aspects to black masculinity. Many [men] can be family-orientated, have great pride in their children, fight against the bombardment of alienation, deprivation and oppression. All this pressure heaped on them and still they push on." That perseverance remains unrecognised.

Take 17-year-old college student John Ross: "Really and truly I didn't want to be like the black male stereotyped nowadays, those involved in stabbings, shootings, police raids, drugs. So I dress differently from how I used to: smart, I look decent, and now I don't have that much trouble because first impressions count."

Michael Manning, a 24-year-old researcher for the Ministry of Justice, also does what it takes to get by in the professional world. "I have learnt to always smile, always be extremely polite, sometimes you have to fake laughter, or raise the pitch of your voice so that people are made aware that you are not threatening or aggressive. The stereotype of black people being aggressive means that to be taken seriously you have to break that."

Devron Durrant, a 23-year-old paralegal solicitor, agrees that that there is a necessity to be "overly polite" in the workplace as a young black man, but he also thinks that Barack Obama has proved that if you are good enough, you will get a chance.

"If the person is right for the job they can do it regardless of colour. Obama winning the presidency proves that, and it would be a shame if black people thought that they couldn't."

Remmal McKenzie, who is 21, used to be a gang member, and went to prison. Now he does community work and trains the police on sensitive policing: "I say to the kids, racism goes on and that but get your grades, no one can take that away. That's your evidence."

Craig Green, who is 21, got that evidence: "I go to bed thinking, I've got a job, I'm at uni, I'm not on the road, I'm not drugged up, I'm not dead." Born into Thatcher's Britain, Craig's mum chose his name carefully: "She didn't call me Jerome or Jermaine, all those black, symbolic names, because then applying for a job you would be rejected." His mum instilled in him the work ethic, he says: "People come in from Poland, Afghanistan and make good money. How is it that a black man thinks he can't do the same and he was born here? Black boys have no fire in their eyes – they are glum and moody and just want to take."

Craig's mum, Coral Pearce, another lone mother, remembers her boy wanting to be white with blue eyes when he was five, because it was easier. "I say to Craig, I know you are upset about your dad but he didn't understand what's important. If he did, he'd be here. I just want my son to think positively." Mums, you repeatedly find, are the heroes of this story.

Do those who hold themselves up as male role models inspire? Apparently not. Famous black men have moved too far away from the ghetto. The politician Shaun Bailey believes he can still connect: "I speak the lingo. I come from Ladbroke Grove. I come from the road and I make that obvious. I come from a very poor black background, single mum, ordinary education and then the army." Which made a man of him.

There are new migrations taking place. Some men are abandoning the badlands and others are walking deeper into the bloody chaos.

Former gang-member Remmal McKenzie understands exactly these dilemmas: "I know a young person who's led exactly my life. I want to show him the whole game, break it down, to say listen to me, don't be stubborn. There's lots of people who have gone through it before you, straps [guns] and shanks [knives] didn't arrive yesterday. Gangsterism and all that – the only new thing is the slang."

Sir William Atkinson runs the beacon Phoenix High School in Hammersmith & Fulham with boys just like Justin and Zaiban. The school walls celebrate his pupils, those who came up, turned themselves around. It is an astonishing sight, these galleries of affirmation. Last year they had a prom night at the Hilton in Mayfair. His school has the highest of expectations even for the most damaged and angry of children. It works.

Will Justin and Zaiban opt for deferred gratification or will they succumb to the lure of cheap thrills and ill gain? They have a greater chance today than ever before of making it. And have never been in more danger. Inspiring this generation to choose the right way, says Atkinson, is the biggest challenge for today's black Britons.

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