At the start of 2008 a friend of mine predicted that it would be the year of the Black Man, and as the year evolved he was proved to be right.
It was the 40 year anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, but it was also the year the world had its first year Black F1 racing champion (Lewis Hamilton), the year a Black man captained the England football team (Rio Ferdinand), and the first Black man to manage a premiership football team (Paul Ince). Most significantly it was the year that Barack Obama became the first Black President of the United States. When Obama won the Presidential election, Black people the world over were filled with pride and new hope. On the morning after his election victory I like many others received this text message.
Rosa Parks sat,
so that Martin Luther King could walk,
so that Barack Obama could stand,
so that our children can fly.
But were Black people right to feel such pride? Barack Obama can be claimed by whites just as much as he is by Blacks. He is infact of dual racial heritage, as is Lewis Hamilton, and Rio Ferdinand. And Obama was not part of that American civil rights legacy of struggle. None of the ancestors on the Black side of his family came to America in slave ships, they were never cotton pickers or share croppers, and they never marched for freedom in the 60’s. When his African father met his white mother it was as an overseas student at the University of Hawaii. Obama spent only a matter of days with his father and was raised by his white mother and his white grandparents. It occurred to me that maybe it was because of his unique racial heritage that he had the confidence to run for President when no-one gave him a chance. He didn’t listen to all those people, (particularly Black ones, myself included) that said a Black man could never be President. Just like those who said that ‘Black men don’t play Golf’ before Tiger Woods came along, or that ‘F1 racing is not a Black man’s sport’ before Lewis Hamilton. Maybe it was because he wasn’t hampered by those shackles of mental slavery that he was able to succeed so spectacularly.
But what about the rest of us? Can the success of Obama, and Hamilton, and Ferdinand inspire Black men throughout the diaspora to new heights? We sure as hell hope so, because aside from those success stories, most ordinary Black men are struggling. We are over-represented in all the places that we don’t want to be – the school exclusion figures, the young offenders institutions, the prisons, and the psychiatric units – and under-represented in all the places we should be – university graduation ceremonies, in the boardrooms, at the business breakfasts and business dinners, at the school parents’ evenings, on the schools’ boards of governors, even in the park playing ball with our sons.
In the States 47% of the penal population is African-American, but only 3.5% of the college students. We are 37% of the schools suspensions and have the lowest life expectancy. We have the highest homicide and cancer rates, and over 30% of the African-American males between 18 and 25 are unemployed.
In the introduction to his excellent book Outliers, another high achiever of mixed parentage Malcolm Gladwell argues that when looking at success stories we should not ask ‘what are they like?’ but rather examine the circumstances of their birth for clues to the secrets of their success. In my examination of the failure of Black men I will do the same thing and argue that when we look at the many areas in which Black men are failing, we should not look at the particular failings of these individuals, but instead look at the circumstances of their birth for clues to the origins of this malaise that blights the Black community. This is not to let off the hook those Black men who are bad fathers, or gang members, or drug dealers, or prison inmates, but rather to understand the phenomenon. Once we can understand the causes of the problem we can go about changing it.
In The Problem With Black Men I have separated what I see as the Black community’s main problems into five areas and address each problem in turn with its own chapter. At the end of each chapter I offer solutions – things that can be done on a personal individual level to improve the situation. For each of these topics there are those that argue that the root cause is institutional racism. Black boys are excluded from schools in such numbers because of the racism of the teachers. They enter the penal system in such numbers because of the racism of law enforcement officers, and are misdiagnosed as schizophrenic because of the racism of mental health professionals. They struggle to find employment because employers are unwilling to employ Black men, and thus contribute to the break-up of the Black family because whilst Black men are denied access to the world of work, Black women are let through, and are thus leaving their Black men behind. All of these explanations maybe true, but if we just blindly accept them then we are accepting the role of mere victims. We are giving all the power to ‘the other man’, and there is nothing that we can do except to ask very politely if the white man would be so kind as to remove his foot from our necks! I for one am tired of waiting for a kindly white man to come along and save us. That is why, whilst acknowledging the role that white racism has to play, I am putting the onus firmly on Black folks, as the causes of and the solutions to our problems.
The Problem With Black Men is available now on Amazon on both paperback and Kindle formats