The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home


Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
September 16, 2004

Jamaican youth culture explains why black boys under-achieve in British schools, argues Anthony Daniels

Posted by Anthony Daniels

Figures show that black boys under-achieve in British schools - in 2003 70% of African-Caribbean boys in London left school with fewer than five or more GCSEs at the top grades of A*-C or equivalent. A report commissioned by Ken Livingstone argues that this is the consequence of the supposed racism of many teachers and the low numbers of black teachers. Anthony Daniels responds to this by arguing that the problem of underachievement is not one of black underachievement but of West Indian, or more specifically Jamaican, underachievement. This underachievement, argues Anthony Daniels, is not due to racism but to Jamaican youth culture.

The Guardian newspaper recently published an article in which it reported the findings of the Mayor of Londonís commission into the academic failure of black schoolchildren. Nothing and no one could have done the black 'community' (to use the cant phrase of our time) greater disservice than the combined forces of the Mayor, his commission and The Guardian.

It will probably come as no surprise to readers that racism was blamed for the failure of black boys to learn much at school. This is because such an explanation naturally tends to expand the powers of patronage of those in power, and to demand an increase in regulatory bureaucracy. Its truth is another matter altogether. What are the attractions and rewards of truth compared with those of power?

In the first place, it is obvious that racial prejudice, within quite wide limits, is not in itself a hurdle that cannot be overcome. The world is full of minorities against whom there is some, or even great, prejudice, and yet who are notably successful in everything from commerce to the arts and sciences. Of course, in a system like apartheid, in which racial prejudice is enshrined in law, the barriers cannot all be overcome (though even under apartheid the blacks were not one large, undifferentiated mass of the downtrodden, with an invariant degree of lack of personal attainment or accomplishment). But to compare contemporary Britain and its racial prejudices with apartheid South Africa would be absurd.

At least as reported in The Guardian, the commission did not disaggregate blacks by their cultural origins. I suspect, though I cannot prove, that had it done so, it would have found a great difference between those blacks whose parents or grandparents came from the West Indies and those who came from West Africa. I suspect also that the problem is not even uniform among West Indians: it is specifically Jamaican.

Moreover, by concentrating on the boys, the commission as reported in The Guardian omitted the fact that the girls do tolerably well from the academic point of view. This coincides with my clinical perspective, dealing with numbers of black patients. The women achieve far more than the men. But if this is really the case, it drives a coach and horses through the putative explanation of black male failure, unless it is suggested what is not probable, namely that anti-black prejudice in schools and elsewhere is directed specifically at males. Talking to my elderly black patients, who really did face obvious prejudice when they arrived in this country, this is not so. The women faced as many insults as the men.

Moreover, the problem of poor achievement by males is no greater in this country than in Jamaica itself. Elderly Jamaicans who return to Jamaica, either on visits or to live, find that the young men who have not left display many of the same characteristics that conduce to abject failure as those who were brought up in Britain.

If raw racial prejudice is not the explanation, then, what is the explanation? I think it is twofold. First, there is a marked lack of stability in the households of young blacks i.e. Jamaicans. This instability is seen in white lowest class households, of course, where it has precisely the same effects, except that the girls are less distinguishable from the boys, from the point of view of failure. Relative poverty does not in itself preclude constructive achievement among children, but when combined with a kaleidoscopically shifting spectrum of social pathology, it most certainly inhibits it.

Perhaps even more important is the culture that the young Jamaicans have adopted for themselves, both in England and Jamaica. It is not exactly a culture that promotes high endeavour in fields such as mathematics, science or English composition, to put it mildly. It is a culture of perpetual spontaneity and immediate gratification, whose largely industrialised and passively consumed products are wholly worthless sub specie aeternitatis. The young Jamaican males may have been sold a bill of goods by an unscrupulous entertainment industry, purveying drivel to morons, but they have bought it with their eyes open. Seen from the outside, at least, this culture is one upon whose valuelessness no execration could be sufficiently heaped.

By refusing even to entertain cultural characteristics as a possible explanation of failure, the combined forces of the Mayor, his commission and The Guardian are in fact serving to enclose the Jamaican black males in the wretched world that they already know and that already encloses them. They are, in effect, saying to them that the fault is not with them, their tastes and the way they conduct themselves, but with society as a whole. They are condemning them to a world of violence, drugs and familial insecurity.

There is more, of course: they are saying, a la Kwame Nkrumah, seek ye first the political kingdom. Unless they somehow seize the state, or some part of it, they are lost. This is, of course, precisely the opposite of the truth. To seize the state, they need a leader; and a kingdom needs a king, or even an Osagyefo, or Redeemer as Nkrumah liked to think of himself (and others, en masse, to call him). No doubt Mr Livingstone sees himself in that modest role. It takes very little knowledge of history to know where such redeemers lead.

We see in the whole of the approach of the Mayor, his commission and The Guardian the dangers of political correctness, or inhibited speech. It is no longer permissible ever to say to ordinary people that the kingdom of hell is within you, that the blame for your travails lies principally with you rather than with others who are responsible for you. We pretend instead that all problems come from outside, and can be solved by conceptually simple, though intrusive, expensive and infantilising, alterations to the institutional environment. Meanwhile, as they wait for their redeemer, the lives of many people are ruined by resentment and paranoia.

The real racists, in our society at least, are those who persist in ascribing to racism any number of baleful effects. They are not altruists, they are power-seekers.

Anthony Daniels is a doctor and writer.


Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Comments

Anthony Daniels is spot on - I have taught in London schools and his argument about Jamaican youth culture fits my own experiences. Teachers are however unwilling to say this publicily for fear of being branded racists. A problem which Daniels does not highlight is the fear that teachers have that parents will play the racism card if their children are put in detention or do badly at school. Thank you for an excellent article.

Posted by: Jane Smith at September 17, 2004 12:05 PM
•••

"If raw racial prejudice is not the explanation, then, what is the explanation? I think it is twofold. First, there is a marked lack of stability in the households of young blacks i.e. Jamaicans.

Relative poverty does not in itself preclude constructive achievement among children, but when combined with a kaleidoscopically shifting spectrum of social pathology, it most certainly inhibits it.

Perhaps even more important is the culture.... a culture of perpetual spontaneity and immediate gratification, whose largely industrialised and passively consumed products are wholly worthless sub specie aeternitatis."

Surely this is a long way from saying simplistically that 'the kingdom of hell is within you'?

Posted by: David at September 17, 2004 02:20 PM
•••

It is astonishing that Ken Livingstone and his commission can actually believe that teaching is a hotbed of racism. Far from being racists most London teachers I have met are fairly apolitical well-intentioned left-liberals.

Posted by: James at September 18, 2004 10:58 PM
•••

I lived in Bermuda for 32 years and the same problem exists there. Black boys were always underachieving compared to the girls and this in a society that is 70% black, where all of the teachers are black, where the government is 100% black. It is quite apparent to all who live there (black and white) that the underachievement is entirely due to a cultural deficit that undoubtedly has its roots in the racism of past ages but for which there is no current justification.

Posted by: Henry Kaye at September 19, 2004 02:14 PM
•••

Over two decades ago, Herbert Gutman (in Power and Culture: Essays on the American Working Class) wrote about the experience of the freed slaves of the former Confederacy. A more racially victimised and poverty-stricken group could scarcely be imagined. Compared to them, the current crop of Anglo-Jamaican youths are as wealthy as kings. Yet Gutman catalogued the remarkable efforts of the freed slaves in the immediate post-war years to provide for their own education out of their own resources. They were quite literally prepared to sacrifice all they had to educate themselves and their children.

Two lessons can be drawn from this; neither of which is likely to be palatable to those such as Livingstone. The first is that (as Daniels says), cultural attitudes to education are crucial and have nothing to do with either poverty or racism. Second, well-meaning but misguided interference by the State in the provision of education is neither necessary nor desirable. People who desire education do not need to be subsidised by Governments; and for people who do not desire to be educated, Government subsidy is a waste of resources.

Posted by: Julius at September 21, 2004 12:46 PM
•••

As all cultures, the Jamaican culture has its negative side as well as its positive. Surely it is the job of educators to highlight the positives of every culture. The positive perception of British culture is pushed to us through schools and the daker side of its nature is played down. There are many examples of Black Jamaican acheivers so why not include them with-in the curriculum?

Posted by: Peter Vincent at February 7, 2006 10:37 AM
•••

"The positive perception of British culture is pushed to us through schools and the darker side of its nature is played down."

Eh?

Posted by: Paul H. at June 26, 2007 06:59 PM
•••

Thiss page has greatly helped me with my research. it has also provided me with extra knowledge.

Posted by: Triska Smart at February 12, 2008 12:43 AM
•••

My son's school separates off the entire (i.e. disaggregated) `group' of black boys for segregated mass empowerment lessons - v divisive, and patronizing to parents as surely they are first base regarding the personal empowerment of their own children. The teacher in charge quotes in justification a report which found, somewhat lazily, that black boys from all class backgrounds have a disadvantaged point of entry into society because of endemic racism. This is very undifferentiating and generalizing and pays zero attention to the circumstances of the individual boys who actually do achieve well, or to the attitude to education and styles of speech instilled within individual pupil's homes (far more relevant than skin colour or economic class). It's all so half-witted and levels down the boys who aren't disadvantaged by their home culture or chosen social styles while providing too many excuses to the others.

Posted by: N A at July 29, 2008 12:09 AM
•••
Post a comment








Anti-spambot Turing code







Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement