'Youth violence is not about race'

We are failing miserably to provide Britain's teenage boys with meaningful occupations, worthy role

I had not wept in an advice surgery until a few weeks ago, when a distraught mother and father came to see me after learning that their teenage daughter had been subjected to the most brutal assault I have ever heard about. A group of young men had subjected this girl to a violent sexual attack, first raping her, then pouring acid over her body.

It seems futile to try to rationalise this act. How can such disregard for humanity be explained? Almost certainly it cannot. Yet there is something that links this horrifying example of male aggression with so much of the violence that society has witnessed this past year. We are not just seeing young people attack one another on Britain's streets; the common theme is that it is predominantly young men who are doing so. This may be a statement of the obvious, but it is one that we cannot ignore. Had this stream of violence been perpetrated almost exclusively by young women, gender would rightly have been invoked as one of the factors. The same must be done in relation to young men.

Alarm bells have been ringing for some time. In classrooms, boys are being outperformed consistently by girls. Recent results show that girls are overtaking boys by the age of 14, and by 18 are far more likely to achieve an A or B grade at A-level than boys. In adolescence, too many young men develop unhealthy attitudes towards sex, money and violence. In adult life, three-quarters of all suicides are men. The prison population is overwhelmingly male - indeed, men comprise almost 95 per cent of those in custody, and this number continues to increase compared to women. Boys, young men and grown men are struggling to find their place in society. It is time to ask ourselves why.

In recent weeks, politicians have gestured towards this issue. When David Cameron raised the responsibility of some fathers in the black community, he covered no new ground. We know that loving parents and male role models matter. We know that 59 per cent of black Caribbean children are looked after by a lone parent. But I winced as another round of banner headlines tarred every father in the black community with the same brush. And, like others, my reaction was that more back-to-basics speeches won't get us very far. The questions that need to be answered for children of all races and social backgrounds are: what can we do when there is no father in a young man's life? And how can society nurture the development and socialisation of young men before a culture of violence robs them of their futures?

Gang culture

The discussion about fatherhood needs to be seen in a wider context: the place of masculinity in modern societies. Because many young men who carry knives or guns do so not because they hope to use them, or even because they fear they might need to. They carry them as symbols of status and power. The issue is one of self-image. In the warped world of gang culture, carrying a weapon has come to be associated with being a man. Rather than being seen as a risk, the knife confers "respect". Understanding the roots of this must be at the heart of any realistic strategy to put an end to the violence.

The reasons are many. Some of the old images and expressions of masculinity are disappearing from society. Most obviously, the relationship between men and their work has undergone a revolution. When coalminers marched against the closure of the pits they were worried for their jobs, but also for their identity and way of life. A model of work built on physical endeavour is slowly being replaced by an emphasis on intellectual and emotional labour. Women are beginning to break through the glass ceiling, displacing men as the principal earners for the first time. Britain is becoming richer and fairer because of these developments, but is also experiencing a big challenge to many traditional notions of masculinity.

In society, the fetishisation of money and the growth of consumerism add new pressures. In a "bling" culture, criminality easily becomes a short cut to symbols of wealth and power that will otherwise take years of hard work to achieve. Inequality plays its part, as young men from poor backgrounds feel they have the least to lose. Why, one boy asked me, was I worried about his grades at school, when he might not live long enough to get a job? This is the world of "get rich or die trying".

In peer groups, interactions between young men in groups are so often based around conflict. Too many boys never learn how to relate positively to other boys, let alone girls. And it starts early. Men make up 44 per cent of secondary school teachers, but fewer than two in ten primary school teachers are men. When I look at my own childhood, I realise that although I grew up without a father, I did have a very responsible elder brother, a local priest, teachers, uncles and youth workers able to fulfil that role. Masculinity is largely made up of learned behaviour and without a model of that behaviour emphasising an ability to express emotions, young boys have to look elsewhere to make what mark they can. Violence - or at least the power to inflict it - becomes a displacement activity. An aggressive street culture replaces success in other spheres of life as an expression of masculinity. Young men become attached to gangs, which reinforce this subculture, rather than families or workplaces, which work against it.

And, in this post-Thatcherite generation more than any other, young men struggle to control their own emotions. An inability to delay gratification - whether with food, alcohol, money or sex - is becoming a hallmark of our age, reinforced by advertising and media (by the age of ten, the average British child recognises nearly 400 brand names). But while materialism and a consumer culture cannot be wished away, its impact on children can be restricted. The centre-left must govern markets in the public interest and it is right to look at advertising and its impact on young people.

Family support

There is a danger that those who cannot discipline their own lifestyles and learning will lose out in future educational success. Yet these things can be learned when young people are given the right structures, support and opportunities. Government and society need to recognise that the most precious resource in this battle is not money, but people's time.

We need to support parents enabling them to spend more time with their children, well beyond maternity and paternity leave. How are we helping families during those tricky times of transition from primary to secondary school, and through later teenage years? While there may be young men on estates missing fathers who left them, there are also children in Middle Britain whose parents become strangers in a culture of long working hours. Where there are no fathers, single mothers should be supported, not demonised. As someone who grew up in a single-parent household, I understand how difficult it can be for a single mother to raise an income and a family at the same time.

While the state must provide financial support, the community must provide male role models for young men to learn from. Corporations should be encouraged to offer mentors to young men, not just sign cheques. One of the best projects I have seen is the City Gateway youth inclusion project in Tower Hamlets, a borough in which almost a quarter of people are deemed to have skills too low for business and where one in five 18- to 25-year-olds claims unemployment benefit, although there are two jobs for every person. The project is run by an Oxbridge graduate who could be earning vastly more in the City, but instead brings volunteers from some of the biggest banks to help develop the skills and job-readiness of young people. We need to find ways to make sure such brilliant projects are more than one-off success stories.

In the US, federal and state governments have used incentives to encourage firms to invest in the inner city. In Kent County in Michigan, a state blighted by some of the worst urban poverty in America, schemes help local businesses offer discounts to people who volunteer as mentors. The Clinton Foundation was established in Harlem as a symbol of solidarity with that area, and in inner-city DC, the Washington Post funds and supports job training for low-income residents.

British workers in the public sector need to be given similar opportunities to become actively involved. Kent County Council, for example, gives its staff two days off every year to engage in voluntary or community activity. We need to decide how we can do this on a much bigger scale.

Strong values

There are other ways we can do more to support the personal development of young men. Addressing youth culture issues must move beyond giving young people "something to do". Young men need something purposeful to do, so that they learn to share, co-operate and produce, not just consume. Youth services, too often an afterthought in the past, must be taken seriously at a local level - whether that is through music, drama or sporting activities such as boxing clubs.

The National Lottery should start delivering projects that are more than the sum of their parts, such as new civic institutions on the scale of the Scouts or the Boys' Brigade, which are grounded in strong values and part of a wider social movement. A national civic service to benefit young people on a personal level and society as a whole is widely supported, but now needs someone to grasp the nettle of compulsion. I am passionate about a universal entitlement to apprenticeships for many of the same reasons. This is about more than learning a skill: the value of apprenticeships is that they establish the routine, structure and contact between generations so often missing.

This list will grow longer and others will add to it, but the crucial point is this: a resilient economy cannot substitute for a good society. And providing young men with the love and opportunities for personal development they need cannot be left to the accident of birth or the whim of charity.

Politicians who grew up enjoying structure, consistency, responsible male role models and an abundance of opportunities for education and enrichment need to do more than lecture others when they reach adult life. The community must play a role in providing those essential ingredients where they are lacking. This takes more than a vague recognition of "society"; it requires an active state. These are ways in which we can act as progressives - and act we must.

Boys under pressure

Research by Adam Lewitt

  • 97% of juvenile offenders aged 15-17 are boys
  • 13% of boys aged 11-15 suffer from a mental disorder, compared with 10% of girls
  • 76% of boys aged 11 achieve government-set literacy levels (85% of girls do)
  • 57% of boys achieved A-C grade GCSEs in 2007, compared with 66% of girls
  • 75% of all suicides occur among young men aged 15-34. Suicide is the second most common way for a male aged 15-34 to die
  • 70%+ of males aged under 18 who are charged for one offence go on to commit further crimes
  • 9 out of 10 gang members are male

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Superpower swoop

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile