our 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
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
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
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
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
It is the case that Black artists, with the exception of
Ms Dynamite, have not been prominent in speaking up on the
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
have not exactly been shining role models for young Black
men, particularly with regard to the possession of firearms.
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.
boys are much more likely to be excluded from school than
their white counterparts. They often find themselves in centres
days are idled away hanging out with friends, showing no
interest in study, smoking and listening to music. Lost to
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
and twenty five, get sucked into the world of drugs, guns
By their mid-twenties most young men have left the world
of street culture behind them, but what a price to pay in
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
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,
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
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
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
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
We are now paying the price for the policies of the 1980s
and 1990s: armed gangs on the streets are in a very real
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.
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
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
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
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
the media will hardly bother to comment on it.