Start to stereotype in 9.87sec: Black role models only compound the problem of racism, says Kenan Malik

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The Independent Online
IN THE summer of 1986, Linford Christie was driving back from training at the White City in West London. Two policemen stopped him. 'What's a nigger like you doing in an England tracksuit?' one demanded. One policeman, Christie later recalled, jumped on his back, twisting his arm behind him. The other kicked him in the stomach. Christie was arrested and kept overnight in a police station cell. In court the following morning, he was accused of assault and inciting a riot and bound over to keep the peace.

In Stuttgart last Sunday, that 'nigger in an England tracksuit' scorched his way to become the champion of the world in a race that installed him as the greatest British athlete of modern times and one of the greatest in the history of the sport. No one questioned his right to wear an 'England tracksuit'. He became, literally, a flag-carrier for Britain, a man in whose power and determination rest the hopes and aspirations of millions of Britons. Proudly carrying a Union Jack, Christie symbolises the way that perceptions of black people seem to have changed in recent years. The 'nigger' has become the hero.

Christie's long road from humble origins in Jamaica, through his struggle against racism and prejudice in west London to the highest peak of his sport, has become for many a potent symbol of what black people can achieve in British society. Indeed, after the Stuttgart final, Christie told reporters that he wanted to be a role model for young blacks.

As role models go, there could be few better than Christie. Gutsy, determined, disciplined, focused, he symbolises the aggression and character needed to make it in the world today. Yet I would hesitate to promote Christie as a role model. Not because of the man, but because the very idea of role models seems dubious.

It has become a commonplace that young black people need role models. By giving young blacks positive images of what can be achieved, runs the argument, we can help them to achieve their goals and ambitions. Everyone from Spike Lee to John Major lauds the achievements of black high-flyers as blazing a trail for others to follow. Far from providing a route by which young blacks can overcome prejudice, however, the elevation of certain individuals to be role models actually compounds the problem of racism in society.

For a start, the role models are limited indeed. Christie, Frank Bruno, John Barnes, Naomi Campbell, Jazzie B, Trevor McDonald - sportsmen, models, entertainers. This is a picture of black people that has barely changed over the past century. The poet Philip Larkin once wrote that for him jazz stopped with Charlie Parker, because after that 'the Negro stopped wanting to entertain the white man'. Half a century later the idea that black people are entertainers for white audiences, and nothing more, endures.

Not only are black heroes stereotyped, they also acquire their power solely through the existence of equally stereotyped anti-heroes. To the same extent that society idolises certain black figures, it demonises others: for every Bruno, there is a Mike Tyson; for every Barnes, there is an Ian Wright.

The media depiction of Tyson, particularly during his rape trial, was a classic case of how an anti-hero is created. The image of Tyson personified all white society's worst fears about black men. Every myth about black men was brought up - from Tyson's illegitimate birth, dependence on welfare and early life of crime and drugs, to his sexual proclivities and his supposedly larger than normal penis. Implicit in the depiction of Tyson as the 'savage beast from the ghetto' was the idea that this is what black people are really like.

The 'black hero' role model depends for its effectiveness on the existence of the black anti-hero. There are black figures society loves - but only because they are unlike what society thinks blacks are really like. We took lovable Frank Bruno to our hearts because he was not like Mike Tyson. In this way the creation of a positive role model only serves to reinforce the worst racist caricatures of black society.

But perhaps the most important problem with the idea of role models is that it permits confusion about the problems that black people face today. In suggesting that young blacks need their own heroes, people are suggesting that the problems they face derive largely from their own inadequacies. In other words, if young blacks had sufficient drive, energy and ambition, they could make their way in society and achieve their goals. Thus, the problem for black people is not racism, but their own lack of motivation or self- belief. This is a latter-day version of the 'chip on the shoulder' argument. If only black people got rid of the chip on their shoulder, stopped moaning about discrimination and got on with life, they could overcome any obstacles they face.

A favoured argument in America, shared by black radicals, white conservatives and academic sociologists, is that black inner-city communities have descended into an 'underclass' shot through with crime, guns and drugs because their young men lack discipline and self-belief. Why do they lack discipline? Because they have grown up in a mother- led family. Without a father for a role model, runs the argument, young blacks become socially dysfunctional. This neatly transfers the problems of black America from a racist society to a pathological black family structure.

But it is simply not the case that black people do not have the drive, the energy or the ambition to achieve their goals. As social outsiders, they often need more of these qualities even to make the smallest of imprints. Unfortunately black ambition and drive is all too often thwarted by racism. Christie himself notes in his autobiography how throughout his life he has faced harassment from police and others in authority. From discrimination in the workplace to police violence, racism is a fact of life for black people. In seeking a solution to black problems in individual aspirations, those who advocate role models tend to avoid the social problems faced by black people today.

'I am proud to be British, proud to have won honours for all of the people,' writes Christie in his autobiography. 'But when I am kicked in the groin in my father's house, when I am taunted and called 'nigger' and 'black bastard', when I am arrested as a result of police harassment, at those times I am ashamed to be British.' It is a contradiction that many black people would recognise.

Linford Christie's run on Sunday was inspirational. However many Christies we produce, though, the majority of black people remain 'niggers' in the eyes of many. Ridding society of such racism requires political will on the part of all of us, not just individual aspiration on the part of black people.

(Photograph omitted)

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