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Guns and the hood

Black on black gun crime illustrates the 'street hood' versus educational success dilemma facing alienated black youth, says Pete Smith.

Four Black Birmingham teenage girls fall in a hail of bullets, two of them fatally injured, and all of a sudden gun culture is front page news. Conflicting explanations abound, some ministers blame gangsta rap, other commentators talk in terms of low self esteem, poverty and deprivation.

Is the education system failing young Afro-Caribbean males? On the other hand is there something about the Black culture of the streets which discourages academic success and generates attitudes which are part of a deviant sub-culture?

Black academics are themselves divided on the issues. Lee Jasper, who advises Ken Livingstone on policing and equality issues blames “criminally high” levels of unemployment in Black communities. For Jasper, “this is not a Black thing, this is a money thing.” Gus John has argued that the demonisation of Black culture in general and young Black men in particular is a process of labelling and blaming the victims of discrimination, racism and an education system which fails to address the needs of young Afro-Caribbean males.

In contrast, Tony Sewell argues that there is a real problem with aspects of Black culture. “I say that because in Peckham today if you go to the library with a book in your hand you’re considered ‘weird’ by your peers and it’s that culture that I think we need to deal with at the moment.”

For Sewell, the culture of the streets is anti-educational. It is a culture that puts style and instant gratification ahead of the values of school and college. For Sewell, Afro-Caribbean males see educational success as a feminine thing. The way for them to get respect is through the credibility of the street. In Sewell’s terminology, the young man wants to be a “street hood”. Success in the school room marks the Black boy out from his peers or classmates and is likely to make him the target of ridicule or bullying. Educational failure becomes a badge to wear with pride.

Ministers have joined in the fray. David Blunkett has blamed Music of Black Origin and Tarique Ghaffur of the Metropolitan Police has referred to a “back drop of music” for influencing alienated and frustrated young, particularly Black, men.
It is the case that Black artists, with the exception of Ms Dynamite, have not been prominent in speaking up on the issue of gun crime in the Black community. For Ghaffur, guns have become a fashion statement for young people influenced by rap and garage music. So Solid Crew have had a high profile and have not exactly been shining role models for young Black men, particularly with regard to the possession of firearms. One estimate is that one in seven gun crimes in London is a “respect” shooting related to real or imagined slights or insults or disputes about women and not directly related to gangs, drugs or robbery.

Black families are often desperate to keep sons in school and on track, but the pressure from the streets is strong. Black boys are much more likely to be excluded from school than their white counterparts. They often find themselves in centres where days are idled away hanging out with friends, showing no interest in study, smoking and listening to music. Lost to the educational process at fourteen, if not before. These young men are obsessed by the need for respect but have no idea that respect might be a quality which needs to be earned. Little wonder that these disaffected young men, typically between the ages of fourteen and twenty five, get sucked into the world of drugs, guns and crime.

By their mid-twenties most young men have left the world of street culture behind them, but what a price to pay in terms of missed opportunities, time in prison, criminal records and lack of employability.

Legal restrictions on gun ownership are irrelevant since they are not held legally and are flooding into Britain from Eastern Europe, along with drugs which fuel the gun culture on the streets and estates. A five year prison sentence for possession of a firearm is beside the point since these young men realise that the chances of being apprehended are negligible.

Schools and families cannot seem to counteract the draw of the street life. Drugs and the guns that go with them, offer the lure of an exciting and comfortable life, even if a short and troubled one. Many young men do not value their own life very much or anyone else’s either.

Most young Black men who carry guns say that they do for self defence. Akosua Annobil-Doddo, a young Black woman who writes for New Nation, says: “Most males, usually between 14 and 25, use guns because they feel they have to, not because they get a thrill out of it. If your mate’s got trouble with a gunman, you’ve got trouble with him – that’s how it works, unless you want to end up an outcast.” And she goes on to say “another boy went on to tell me how every garage MC he knew owned a gun. ‘They are always getting robbed, that’s why,’ he explained. ‘People on the road see ordinary boys making money, going around with nice cars and jewellery, and they think: What’s he doing with that? He shouldn’t have that – let’s rob him.’” Even So Solid Crew has justified their involvement with guns in terms of the need for self protection. Young people from inner city neighbourhoods talk matter of factly about “jacking”, almost random street robberies of money, clothes or valuables.

We have known since the Swann Report of the 1980s that differential educational performance between members of different racial and ethic groups can be largely explained in terms of social class. Racial underperformance is very largely social class in disguise. In fact, once class has been allowed for, Asian, African and female Afro-Caribbean pupils do rather better than their white equivalents. The one group that this is not true of is Afro-Caribbean boys who underperform even when social class is allowed for.

Lee Jasper just cannot be right that the problems of street culture and underachievement can be simply explained in terms of poverty and deprivation. The achievement gap between sixteen year old white pupils and their Afro-Caribbean equivalents has doubled since the late 1980s.

Tony Sewell has reiterated his belief that underachievement amongst Black children is too deep rooted to be attributed simply to racism, but that many Black boys saw education and learning as “anti-Black”. Sewell also says “I put it down to false thinking almost – where it comes from I don’t know – but the children feel they cannot resolve the issue of being good at school and also in with their peer group.” Garbux Singh of the Commission for Racial Equality has argued “Black culture alone cannot be blamed for lower levels of achievement and higher exclusion rates amongst Afro-Caribbean pupils. Educationalists must find ways to make going to school an interesting, challenging and rewarding experience for all the pupils. If this does not happen Britain will have to deal with a generation of disaffected uneducated young men, with little to look forward to in terms of their employment and career prospects. Schools and teachers must find ways to engage all boys to tackle underachievement – Black and white.”

We are now paying the price for the policies of the 1980s and 1990s: armed gangs on the streets are in a very real sense Thatcher’s children. Individualism, materialism and conspicuous consumption have become the values and culture of the inner city neighbourhoods and run down estates. In many parts of Britain, Mrs Thatcher’s classic denial that there is any such thing as society has become a grim reality. The comments of several Labour ministers on the issue of crime on the streets misses the point. Yes, there has been poverty and deprivation in parts of Britain before, but there was also a culture which very largely stopped people turning on their neighbours.

The values of the Labour Party, the trade unions and the churches provided a framework for community in some of the poorest towns and cities. Those values and communities have now been extensively uprooted and abandoned, not least by New Labour in power. The street hoods of our era do not go to Mayfair or Knightsbridge to commit their crimes, instead they victimise the person in the next street or in the same block of flats. That is why gun crime and school underachievement are left wing issues, territory which should not be surrendered to the right.

To blame only inequality and poverty is to surrender any realistic possibility of doing anything much about young Black men being failed by the education system and hence the wider society. We are experiencing an epidemic of gun crime in Britain, a failure to do anything to bring young Black males into the fold of the wider society will see, as in the United States, gun crime turn from an epidemic which hits the headlines into an endemic problem so deep-seated and taken for granted that the media will hardly bother to comment on it.