Academic Failure, a Contempt for Authority, and Violence - You Can't Blame It All on Racism!

Daily Mail (London), August 19, 2004 | Go to article overview

Academic Failure, a Contempt for Authority, and Violence - You Can't Blame It All on Racism!


Byline: DAVID MATTHEWS

THE decision to give my television series, which starts tonight, the provocative title The Trouble With Black Men was deliberate. For the sad truth is that many young black men in this country are in all kinds of trouble, and it is high time society faced up to it.

Unless young black men admit that things have gone badly wrong for many of them, I fear they will never be able to regain control of their lives.

Instead, they will continue to take the easy option, as I did for many years, and blame everything - from underachievement at school, to laissez-faire attitudes to sex, drugs, crime and the fast-growing gun culture - on racism.

Of course, racism still exists. It is both insidious and debilitating, and it must be fought. But the reality is that racism is far less important than it was when I was growing up, a working-class African-Caribbean youngster in London's East End, 25 years ago. It is important that someone from the black community should say so.

I know there is a very long way to go, but today's schools really are better, and educational opportunities are greater. Ours is now a more tolerant and multicultural society.

Even so, during my investigation I found that many sullen and resentful young, black men are trapped in the same culture of nihilism and apathy which almost destroyed me.

Above all, they lacked self-respect.

And if you do not respect yourself, you surely will not respect your community or the society in which you live.

Take my example. As a kid from a good home with two hardworking, loving parents, I rebelled and elected to run wild on the streets.

Ours had been a middleclass family back in Guyana. My grandfather had been a chief justice. My parents never complained, but over here my dad had to work as a welder. I bitterly resented seeing them struggling to earn enough to survive, and trying hold the family together.

I saw them uncomplainingly treated with disdain or downright contempt by many of their white neighbours, and I was determined to avoid their fate.

Racism - and my reaction to it - was eating into me like a cancer.

Then, for family reasons, I was sent to live for a year with relatives in a tough area of Brooklyn, New York.

MY NEW school, Walt Whitman Intermediate, was about as bad as you can get: violence, defeatism, low morale and low expectations. A sullen acceptance that it just wasn't worth trying to achieve if you were black.

Is it any surprise that, on my return to London, I was a wannabe gangster for ten years, involved in petty larceny and gang fights?

I had more than my fair share of run-ins with skinheads, National Front supporters and, yes, racist policemen. I was called 'nigger' to my face, in a manner that seldom happens now.

Having come up the hard way, I think I have the right to talk honestly about what has gone wrong with today's young, black men.

After all, I escaped from a life predestined to be one of abject failure. I pulled myself up at the point when I suddenly realised I would either end up dead - or in jail.

I pray today's young, black men will find the strength to do the same.

But why is it, for example, that black teenage boys continue to do so badly at school? Why has so little changed in the 20-plus years since I was a pupil?

Even today, only 25 per cent of them can hope to get five good GCSEs, compared with 51 per cent of the population. …

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