The media create a damaging stereotype, portraying black youths as criminally minded underachievers
This month I attended an awards ceremony at the House of Commons in which black youngsters were celebrated for their achievements. There was the Nigerian author who had become the youngest woman ever given a book deal by top publishers Faber & Faber. There was the young man who’d achieved six A*s and two As at A-level – four of which he’d taught himself outside school – and was now an organ scholar at Oxford University. And there was the Cambridge student who’s also an award-winning community poet.
This event, the Rare Rising Stars 2012, is just one of a number of initiatives showcasing the best young black talent. The individuals recognised all have outstanding drive, ability and dedication – and have proven themselves academically too.
All these award schemes have been set up with one main aim: to challenge the perpetual stereotype of black kids, especially boys, as uneducated, disaffected and demotivated.
I left the ceremony feeling uplifted by the talent on display; but also with a deflated sense that, despite the organisers’ efforts, they really will have their work cut out to try to change society’s perceptions. On the same day as the awards, news reports were leading with the story of a gang of six black boys who’d been convicted for their roles in the rioting last August. On Radio 4’s flagship Today programme, a series ran all last week on the problems of black gangs. Each day, it seems, there’s another story which reinforces the idea of black kids being a homogeneous block of criminally minded underachievers. The positive stories to counterbalance this are non-existent.
This all fits in with little-reported research published this year, which showed huge disparities in how black boys are reported compared with others.
The report, Media Representations of Black Young Men and Boys, commissioned for the communities department’s Reach project, found that “the dominant discourse surrounding black young men and boys in the news media links them with violent crime, and particularly murders involving knives and/or gangs”. In a content analysis of mainstream news, it found that just over four in 10 stories for all young men and boys were crime-related, but “close to seven in 10 stories of black young men and boys related in some form to crime”.
They found that more positive, upbeat stories involving black boys received far less coverage than the average, and concluded: “In our view, media coverage of black boys, overall, paints a highly distorted picture”.
They’re right, of course. No sensible person could seriously claim that 70% of black boys are criminal, yet this is clearly the image the media portrays. And it is hugely damaging. When boys apply for jobs, what will be in the mind of the employer, who can’t help but be influenced by the media depiction he or she sees constantly? This year the Guardian revealed that 56% of young black men are out of work.
And last week we saw another example of how these stereotypes work in the real world, when new figures showed that police are up to 28 times more likely to stop and search black people.
These statistics were particularly shocking because they relate to Section 60 of the 1994 Public Order Act, which allows officers to stop people without requiring any suspicion of their involvement in crime. In other words, officers have free rein to target people purely on the basis of their own prejudices, or gut feelings. When these are let loose, the impact is reminiscent of the discredited 1970s sus laws, which caused such ill-feeling in black communities and sparked the 1981 riots across Britain.
Are black people really 28 times more likely to cause crime than whites? If officers believe the media, maybe they think so.
Clearly this widespread harassment of black people cannot continue. Only last summer, just as in the 1980s, we saw how anger towards the police was the main cause of the rioting.
But, more than that, those who believe in a fair society must also believe that individuals should be judged on their own merits and not have their hopes and dreams dashed by such overriding negative stereotypes. Otherwise what’s the value of ambition, and a top education, if the employer or the policeman sees only a gangster?