The message is out: black boys are failing. But what roles do the government, the education system, and the media play in the phenomenon of systematic failure? Lawna Tapper examines the underlying causes for the widespread academic failings of young African-Carribean males in the UK.
Tell me I’m a failure and I’ll be just that! The damaging effects of the self-fulfilling prophecy have long been known, even outside psychological circles. When the term ‘African-Caribbean boys’ is featured in the headlines, how often is it for positive reasons? Without wanting to sound unduly conspiratorial, one wonders whether this constant negative emphasis is part of a wider scheme to keep black boys ‘down.’ Believe it or not, there are those who will view the situation this way, so let’s look at the facts.
School’s a good place to start, as that is generally one’s first experience of being part of ‘the system.’ According to a study carried out by Ofsted, the government’s inspector of schools, when African-Caribbean children start school at 4 years old, their attainment is 20% above average. By the time they leave school, aged 16, however, this has reversed to 21% below the national average. Not good!
But what other pointers are there? How present are black boys when one generally surveys society’s anxieties? Even without figures, one just needs to be alive and in touch with people to know that the general opinion of African-Caribbean boys is low! Any talk of gang violence, people envision black boys. Word of a mugging, they see a hooded black boy fleeing the scene. Despite being part of a minority population in white Britain, young black men proliferate the nation’s prison wings and mental health wards. Educationalist’s concerns centre around the fact that exclusion figures are highest amongst black boys. They also focus on the fact that it is black boys who are failing to meet the national threshold of 5 GCSEs, grades A – C. And who does the world think of when there’s talk of multiple baby mothers and absent fathers? Black men! When we hear about ghettos, the temptation to imagine black boys bopping and skulking their streets is irresistible. Don’t ask for figures, stand guilty as charged – you know it’s true!
I asked a 15-year-old whether he felt like people were talking about him personally, or just boys of his age and race, during discussions about underachieving and failing black boys. He had this to say: “Even though I know I’m not like that – doing all the bad things that they think we do – it’s irritating! It’s like you go to primary school and the teachers are nice, and everything’s fine. Then you go to high school, and you know when a teacher can’t stand you…Yeah, I do feel like they’re talking about me, it drains you – it’s like it sucks the spirit out of you! If you’re not careful, you actually start wanting to be bad.” The self-fulfilling prophecy?
There’s no denying that there are many African–Caribbean boys that get caught up and trapped in this mad cycle of thinking they are failures. But guess what? Lots of white boys do too, and those of other nationalities. When, in October, The Daily Mirror decided to publish the faces of the 51 young people who have lost their lives as a result of violent and meaningless crimes this year, I wonder how many of its readers were shocked to learn that only 19 of the 51 were actually black? Without meaning to undermine the impact and sadness that is still felt by the families and communities affected, it is worth pointing out that that is only 37% black. Doubtless, that figure is high for a minority population, but we must also note the fact that Rhys Jones (casualty number 52) and most of the other 32 victims were white.
A few years ago, when I was teaching at an inner-city school in Central London, the child with the most disturbing behaviour issues in the entire school was not black; he was white. When he left and went on to high school, he only survived as far as Year 8 before he was permanently excluded. It’s not just you, black boys!
Just listen to those dissenting voices – ‘nobody said it was just black boys!’ Yes, I know that, but the fact is they are made to feel it is just them because of the constant focus that is placed on their failings in comparison to the failings of anyone else. And somebody, somewhere, needs to start putting these negative images into perspective.
So why is there this imbalance – this overbearing emphasis on the failings of black boys? Despite being a minority in Britain, their numbers in society’s negative arenas is relatively high. Furthermore, this disproportionate representation is not seen in positive areas. This is the essential difference between blacks and other races: for every white and Asian thief, there are many more white and Asian businessmen, doctors, and other professionals. And time has shown that any situation of imbalance will breed contempt. The contempt for blacks, by themselves and other races, needs to end. It is time to set about highlighting efforts that endeavour to create a sense of balance and offset the negativity.
How many conferences have been organized to tackle the problems and find solutions to the educational failings of white boys? At the Black Education Conference in 2001, where then-Education Minister Baroness Cathy Ashton pledged ‘a fundamental reappraisal of policy and practices,’ Labour MP Diane Abbott and Mayor Ken Livingstone promised to hold a conference every single year until the issue of under-achieving African-Caribbean boys was resolved. My aim is not to be disparaging about such efforts. There is value in them, as there is in ‘Barriers to Learning Projects,’ peer mentoring schemes, and the good work done by organizations such as supplementary schools. Perhaps even Trevor Phillip’s call for segregated classes for black boys might be worth debating. The point is that black boys need to stop hearing that they are part of the only underclass in society destined to end up incarcerated, ‘mad,’ or dead. This is just more focus on the negative, working to give it more power.
To celebrate Black History Month this year, Bashy, a young Grime rap artist produced a track called ‘Black Boys.’ He has dedicated it to ‘all black boys growing up,’ his aim to highlight different ‘black boys making movements towards success.’ Bashy name-drops throughout the tune, praising Dizzy Rascal’s achievement award, Tim Campbell’s winning of ‘The Apprentice’ and the presence of black MP’s like Paul Boateng. He urges his peers to feel a sense of pride about the contributions blacks make and reminds them that they are not ‘hooligans, but talented young Nubians.’ He ends with a verbal accolade to his own father, calling him ‘a positive black man in my life.’ So there! There are black men who stand by their children! How refreshing!
My suggestion is that the conferences be balanced by this sort of focus. Positivity is essential and may prove more far-reaching in any effort to tackle whatever failings are up for discussion. What is needed is an emphasis on the importance of sustaining the wider family, self-discipline, and a positive cultural awareness not bound by limitations. Let them know they do have role models, and let them want to aspire to be role models themselves: role models that do not disassociate themselves from the reality and experience of what it means to be black – that’s the real challenge.
Elders have a duty to ensure that black boys (and girls) are part of communities that will help them make sense of the nonsense of consumerism, the existence of institutional racism and ways of empowering themselves to minimize its impact. They must be made aware of government ploys and schemes, divide and rule tactics, and the potency of media propaganda. Parents must teach their black boys (and girls) about the significance of the choices they make and how those choices work to create the situations that they find themselves in. This is the true meaning of being responsible. Give back boys (and girls) teachers who are aware and honest enough to free themselves from the shackles of stereotyping, and confident enough to remind their pupils that they are only children, thereby lessening the power that makes peer-pressure so lethal.
As time evolves, it is natural for us to reappraise the strategies we employ. Let’s now begin to focus on the successes. Make those ‘potential under-achievers’ less conscious of the inclination to fail and more aware and pro-active about the type of life they want to create for themselves. It is time to consider whether the focus on failure is having a damaging effect.
1st December 2007