WHEN I joined in a surprise celebration at the Brixton Neighbourhood Community Association the other night it was no ordinary birthday bash. The place was throbbing with excitement as the target of our congratulations, Brother Courtney, the director and a stalwart in the community for three decades, was joined by local activists, business people, community leaders, friends and supporters - even a senior police officer. Brother Courtney's family was there - Ruby and their three children, along with grandchildren.
It was the feeling of celebrating with a wider family that made the evening so significant, made it so much a part of the way in which real Caribbean life is celebrated. Most of us were not Brother Courtney's 'relatives', but all of us were bonding through those ties of love, respect and togetherness which have
seen them through the pressures and the problems, the highs and the lows of life on the Brixton front line.
For me, it was yet another example of the way in which we have to be so careful when we talk about 'the family', particularly when people then try to load the word with all kinds of moral meanings. The statistics now coming out of the 1991 Census demonstrate that 'the family' is not only a matter of political and academic debate, it is also another dimension to the different life experiences of Britain's ethnic minorities.
At the Commission for Racial Equality, we asked Warwick University's Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations to go through the census results and draw out the figures on ethnic minorities. The centre's latest study looks at family characteristics. There are significant differences in the proportion of households taken up by the 'traditional nuclear family' of a woman and a man, with or without children. Four- fifths of Asian households fall into this category, only two-thirds of their white neighbours do, but for black households the proportion is less than half, 48 per cent to be precise.
This suggests that some long-term cultural and religious differences may be at work here, particularly when one adds in the fact that, among lone-parent households, the black community stands out with far and away the greater number: 17 per cent of black households are in this category, as against 4 per cent among whites and 3.7 per cent among Asians.
Attitudes in Britain have changed over the years when it comes to single-parenting, yet the idea still generates an atmosphere of moral condemnation in much of the public discussion. The Caribbean community tends not to share that attitude. For black people with roots in the Caribbean, the family has different meanings from those which have prevailed in British society.
In many ways, we share the tradition of the tightly structured, extended family relationship that has been brought back into British society by Asians. Yet the individual in our tradition also shares in a wider supportive network of relationships that goes beyond the immediate 'family' out into the broader community. There may well still be many in the white community who are critical of the high number of black lone-parent households. Perhaps they can understand, in return, the surprise that many from the
Caribbean have at the growing number of lone-
pensioner households in the white community - it now runs at one in every six white households.
True, this may be a challenge that the black community has to face as it ages (the age profile of Britain's white population is older than for blacks) and
as social and economic change brings its patterns closer to that of Britain in general, but at the moment there are more immediate dilemmas facing our community.
To what extent, for instance, is a disadvantaged and deprived community generated by the way that differences in lifestyles, family orientation and structure, child upbringing, culture and religion are interacting with wider economic and social pressures, amplified by the racism and racial discrimination still so strongly embedded in society? And how is the black community in Britain responding to these challenges? The argument about parenting is at the heart of all this.
The pressures of poverty and racial discrimination have had a negative impact on many black households. Some argue that traditional Caribbean family ties are disintegrating in the face of these pressures, that the wider bonds we felt around Brother Courtney are beginning to erode for a younger generation. This, they say, may be leading to the emergence of an underclass.
The lone-parent household itself is not the problem. But the pressure of having to cope with the needs of children in such a context without the support of those traditional wider family/community networks undoubtedly is. For black lone-parent households you have to add in the need to cope with the pressures that arise from racism and racial discrimination.
How are they coping as those extended supportive networks fall away? How is the black community trying to fill the gap? Although we have no empirical evidence as to the scale and detail of the problem - how many, for instance, of the black pupils excluded from schools in recent years have been from lone-parent households - there is a growing realisation in the black community of the nature of the situation and the emergence of some solutions, based on self-help and self-organisation.
We have to face the fact that black men, whether they are in the household or not, are more likely
than white men to be unemployed, so their in-
comes are not going to help overcome the cycle of deprivation.
Yet there is a changing pattern of child-rearing, a shifting distribution of responsibilities which may be small but is discernible and encouraging. More black men are to be seen pushing the pram, doing the shopping, taking the children to and from nursery or school. They are becoming more domesticated, in what some of them will feel is a substantial shift from their macho image.
Black children and youth need all the help they can get when faced with the unrelenting pressures of the society around them. The males among them need support from the wider community, they need leadership and role models to guide them positively. At the moment the centre of attention is on music, sport
and entertainment. Success in alternative cultures and in music can often override the drive for educational achievement. It is here that black men as role models, leaders and fathers can be so important in accelerating the slow shift towards a more serious and responsible image. This shift is to be welcomed, though the scale of the change still required cannot be underestimated.
Those of us celebrating with Brother Courtney went home at a reasonable hour. But as that party
was drawing to a close another on a nearby council estate was just beginning. It was Darren's 18th birthday and the celebrations did not end until around 10 on Sunday morning. Hardly any of the neighbourhood got to sleep that night. For some it was awful, for others, particularly the young, it was the time of their lives. There is a huge challenge there. Somewhere, in the networks that came together for both those celebrations, we are going to have to find the answers.
The author is chair of the Commission for Racial Equality.
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