In search of a sense of belonging

Yvonne Roberts ponders the culture that in the
UK prevents young black men from realising their talents.

Black film-maker Lennie James, in a powerful
essay in the latest issue of the monthly political magazine
Prospect, comments on the significance of the sentencing
of Ashley Walters, 19, from the garage group So Solid
. Last week, he was given 18 months for carrying a
converted air pistol loaded with live ammunition.

Two years ago, Walters starred in James’s
award-winning film Storm Damage, bringing to it “weight and
thoughtfulness beyond his years”, according to one critic. Now,
James says, he is held up as a symbol of moral decay among young
black Britain “otherwise represented by Yardies, mobile phone
thefts and rock-bottom school results”.

Last week, Denzel Washington, on his fourth
nomination, finally won an Oscar. He grew up mixing with the wrong
crowd. Two friends served time for armed robbery, at which point
his mother sent him to private school. Eventually, in acting,
Washington found “a sense of belonging”. The film he is now
directing is also about a troubled black teenager who finds his
niche in the navy.

In his essay, James argues that a sense of
belonging is precisely what Walters has found in the culture
associated with So Solid Crew. “That world gave him more
recognition thanÉ the world in which he has more than enough
talent to excel. We have to put that right,” James says.

In the US, black faces are in the White House,
on Wall Street and heading corporations. Profound racism exists but
joining the middle class is seen as doing well, not selling out.
Here, many young people regard climbing the ladder as betrayal,
“scraping off the black”.

A young black man in London is proportionately
more likely than his white counterpart to be kicked out of school,
picked up by police and experience violence and unemployment.
Equally tough odds prevail in the US, but the culture propels
rather than deters many to successfully seek out Denzel
Washington’s different kind of niche.

James says the black community here is
involved in two dialogues. One is with the white community,
challenging its prejudices. The other is internal, asking whether a
moral vacuum exists in its ranks.

The field of social work might benefit from
posing equally tough questions of itself. Are the methods used to
encourage young black people to find a positive sense of belonging
innovative and widespread enough in a society that often acts with
such hostility? And where is the magnet that will attract young
black males into social work, a profession in which they are as
almost as scarce as black Oscar winners in Hollywood?

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