The heroic struggle of black parenthood

Where the blame really lies for the plight of Britain's black youth

The news that three children aged 16 and under had been murdered in the UK took Trinidad by storm. Newspaper journalists and radio and television announcers plagued my brother's phone, seeking me out for comment. Mum's the word, was my slogan. I was in Trinidad on holiday, and I learned long ago that the instant analysis in extreme moments adds little insight to the issues.

My first certainty is that these are Tony Blair's children. New Labour came to power ten years ago, when these kids were barely out of their pushchairs. Responsibility, offloaded on to parents, should instead be placed firmly at the door of 10 Downing Street.

South London is my turf. I have lived here for close to 35 years. Scores of friends and a stream of associates, dead and alive, have inspired my journalism. I am sure of one fact: there exists here in our communities an unrelenting struggle, mounted by families and friends, young and old, to restrain our young black men from crime, and gun crime in particular. Without this intervention we would be living in a state of siege.

But parents can do only so much. In 2005, I went public with my personal agony, authoring a Channel 4 documentary, Son of Mine. Since then, everywhere I turn in south London, parents stop me in the street to ask: "How's your son getting on?" This is not just curiosity, but a sharing of sympathy with someone engaged in the same struggle as they are.

The official response to these problems, however, is all stick and no carrot. The brutish approach of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and the Home Secretary has been to argue that mandatory five-year sentences be handed down to younger people caught with firearms. Two points here: what about those who manufacture and import them? And second, our prisons are already filled to bursting with young men found guilty of gun crimes who will be released well into middle age, when their parents and grandparents will probably be dead. How much more extreme can we get?

And another point: south London is not under siege. There are no self-imposed curfews. There is a coming and a going from sunrise to sunset. There is little cordite in the air. The clubs bounce and announce the presence of a sea of black youth. Peckham and Brixton markets recall "Before the Curtain" in Thackeray's Vanity Fair.

Even so, gun crime disturbs. In times past, the black and white middle classes lived cheek by jowl with people from the sprawling council estates. Throughout the development of the Caribbean and African societies, the middle classes have acted as a restraint on the excesses of the deprived masses, contributing to their social and cultural development.

Now they have cut and run, leaving the proletarian youth to rant, rave and misbehave. The privileged send their children to schools way over on the other side of London, before moving themselves. The result? We are all consumed. Yet it is those who have cut and run who pontificate the most. It is all hypocrisy.

Meanwhile, councils and central government have dispensed with youth services. Where are the youth clubs where thousands of us sheltered, danced and discussed the issues of the day? (I arrived in the UK just turned 18.)

In such circumstances, we, those parents who have remained in certain parts of south London, have done extremely well. We have worked hard to halt the downward spiral in which some of Blair's children have found themselves. Yet only a well-publicised programme for youth regeneration can bring about lasting change.

We await you, Gordon Brown, or whoever else may be enthroned.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war