At last, someone has confronted the truth about young black men

'When it comes to black boys, peer group values are pushing out parental control'
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The Independent Online

No one in this country knows more than the educationalist Tony Sewell about what is going on in the lives and heads of black boys and young men.

No one in this country knows more than the educationalist Tony Sewell about what is going on in the lives and heads of black boys and young men.

He has spent over a decade carrying out research on how these young Britons relate to the social environment, to school, to family life, and how they, in turn, are seen and treated by those around them. He is a tough and intellectually rigorous man with an absolute commitment to his own, black community. I don't know him but have heard him speaking at conferences with the power and presence of evangelical African-American preachers and, like them, I feel he wants the best for his people.

And yet today he stands accused of being a "Bounty bar" (brown on the outside, white inside) and of pandering to racism by self-selected "community" bodyguards who duff up anyone daring to suggest that not all the problems faced by black and Asian people are down solely to white racism. Shame on them, I say. They do more damage than they have the wit to know.

I only hope that Mr Sewell (who today must be wishing that he had chosen instead to study alligators)and others like him will not be deterred by these storming brawlers who want all of us to be nothing more than MOPEs - the most-oppressed people ever. Never responsible and never culpable, never in need of self-criticism nor of improvement.

So what is the fuss all about? This week Sewell said that his research into the underachievement of black schoolboys shows that there are a number of factors responsible. One of them is indeed racism, but almost as damaging is the black youth culture, with its emphasis on clothes, rap music, expensive cars and the like.

I would add sex to the list. Those who attacked Sewell said he was seeking attention by "saying things that white liberals would naturally agree with" and for "blaming the victim". Lee Jasper, a very effective anti-racist and adviser to Ken Livingstone, is quoted as saying: "There is a race crisis in our schools... there's a raft of evidence that white teachers find black boys intimidating, difficult to deal with. They have an expectation about their behaviour which tends to dictate the quality of teaching."

Let us unpack that. If black boys are behaving in threatening ways toward female teachers, should they be taught to behave with greater respect or should the teachers simply surrender to this macho posturing because to do anything else would be thought racist? If my son had ever tried to intimidate his tutors, especially his women tutors, I would have asked the school to suspend him. Sexist bullying is surely as vile as racist behaviour.

That does not mean that all is well with our education system. Teachers can be prejudiced and do fail large numbers of black and Asian children, and this was pointed out by Sewell in his book Black Masculinities and Schooling. The researchers Caroline Gipps and David Gillborn of the Institute of Education found that the education system and the national curriculum perpetuated inequality and had failed to address the needs of a complex and diverse population.

However, in spite of these obstacles, Asian and Chinese pupils still manage to get more out of the school experience than do black boys. Alan Hall, a Bradford head teacher, believes: "The biggest single advantage [Asian pupils] gain from their family background is that they are seldom cynical about school, teachers and education." We know that three factors have an effect on educational outcomes - parents, school and peer-group attitudes.

The truth is that many black parents feel so disenchanted, that they find it hard to have any faith in any of our institutions. That is sad, especially as so many of them made that hard journey across so that their children could have a better education in the much-hyped mother country. But it is important to recognise that their hopelessness has transmitted certain messages to their young, who are also influenced by the anti-education values of many white working-class families.

Miraculously, a large number of black girls and some black boys are able to motivate themselves and get qualifications. In families where parents still retain a belief in the power of education, you see extraordinary results. Baroness Scotland and the novelist and barrister Nicola Williams were both told in their inner-city schools that they would make fine shop-girls. Their parents knew better.

Increasingly, however, when it comes to black boys, peer-group values are pushing out parental control. The obsession with goods is not only a "black" problem, as Deborah Orr pointed out on these pages yesterday. Nor is machismo. But if we are going to talk sensibly about any social problem, it is essential that all aspects of it are investigated.

White and Asian kids are as consumed by consumerism, but that does not mean that we should not therefore discuss the impact of these values on those who are being left behind in this fast-moving, knowledge-based world. Black boys may not be any worse, but the consequences on their lives are, at present, more alarming. Unprecedented numbers of them are excluded from schools. Too many end up with no qualifications. This underachievement and racism means most cannot get decent jobs. Criminal activities are seen as the only option.

I have a pile of letters from black mothers, wives, girlfriends and sisters, all worried sick over what is happening to their young men. Let me quote just two. Leroia is 19 and a mother. She is back at college and writes: "My son's father cannot understand why I want to change. I want more for my child. I want a job, respect. He is intelligent but he is wasting himself. He has bad friends into drugs and that, and I know something bad will happen to him."

Martha, a mother of three sons says: "Peter turned out right. He works for BT. The other two, Benjy and Robby, are totally out of control. I am scared of them and for them. You know the police hate our kids anyway, but mine are ripe for picking."

So are these women also "Bounty bars"? Are they trying to appease racists? Or are they brave and honest like Sewell, simply telling it like it is, so that something is done to save young black men before it is too late?

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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