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ON BLACK BRITISH FATHERS

 

By Akua Richards

 

Thursday, August 14, 2008.

 

With the failings of African-Carribean youths taking up so much mainstream media coverage in Britain, the paternal duties of African-Caribean men are falling under much scrutiny. Doubtless they owe parental obligation to their children.

So David Cameron wants black fathers to take responsibility for their children. Speaking with The Guardian last month, the leader and self-styled Gok Wan of the Conservative Party, called for a ‘responsibility revolution’ in the black community, echoing Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s controversial comments that black men who refuse to look after their offspring need to stop acting like teenagers. 

In an interview to mark the end of the parliamentary year and to celebrate the Conservative’s landmark 20-point lead over the Labour Party, he said: "I think he's absolutely right. I mean I think it's a very brave thing to do. And it will have a huge influence that he has said it. I've had a number of meetings with black church leaders who make the same point. They are concerned about family breakdown and social breakdown, and want to see what I call a responsibility revolution take place."

Just exactly what this ‘revolution’ involves, how it will happen, and whether it will include absentee fathers of other races, he doesn’t say. But unlike Obama, whose comments were met with threats of castration from Jesse Jackson, Cameron’s statement was publicly lauded by several prominent members of the African-Caribbean community including education campaigner Dr. Tony Sewell and Reverend Nims Obunge of the Peace Alliance. Sewell told reporters: "This is an issue that needs to be discussed, and Cameron is well placed to discuss it."

But there’s something a bit irksome, to say the least, about a Tory leader talking to a predominantly white middle class audience about the perceived problems of the African-Caribbean working class. Problems that the punishing economic reforms pursued by his party more than twenty years ago, helped to create.

 

That’s not to say that there isn’t a grave problem regarding paternal responsibility within sections of the black community; when government statistics reveal that almost half of all black children are brought up in single parent families compared with 22 per cent of white children, and at a time when we are bombarded with daily reports of young black boys killing one another, that is clear for all to see.

 

And as what many consider to be Prime Minister-in-waiting, Cameron has every right to speak out about it. But where is black British Barack Obama or even Jesse Jackson to counter the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’-ness of his comments? For some, that the leader of the right-wing opposition should be the one to raise this issue in the mainstream does little more than to highlight the absence of a formidable black political leadership in this country. 

It also says something about Cameron. In spite of his radical attempts to modernise the image of the Tory party, what with his George W. Bush-esque appointment black party members to positions of visibility, Cameron’s views on black fatherhood betray his narrow reading of the situation. 

 

The breakdown of the family unit has affected communities across the race divide. Economics is key, and in tandem with race, it’s a corrosive partnership. In 1987, Margaret Thatcher caused shock and revulsion when she said there was no such thing as society.

 

But 20 years later it has come to pass. Parents forced to work longer hours to make ends meet, an education system and social service on the verge of implosion, unaffordable housing, a widening gap between the rich and the poor, and despite the best efforts of the New Labour experiment, society exists in micro-clusters. Is this a problem of black fathers or the by-product of centuries of capitalist pursuit?

Cameron says that he recognises that the discrimination and socio-economic disadvantages faced by black people need to be tackled, but followed that small concession with the comment, "at the same time we will never solve the long term problems unless people also take responsibility for their own lives." 

 

But can an individual or even a community take responsibility for problems which they played little part in creating? Let’s not forget the historical roots of this malaise. During the days of slavery, black men on plantations in the Caribbean and Americas were literally bred to breed more slaves. Fatherhood was as foreign a concept as freedom. The dynamics of the African-Caribbean family has been overshadowed by this history. It may be in the past, but to deny its modern resonance is as dishonest as it is naïve.

The link between race, crime and bad parenting has been explicitly and consistently made. Black boys are going off the rails because their fathers aren’t around. Black girls have low self-esteem because their fathers aren’t around to value them.

 

What about the majority of families where the father is around? Is it really fair to judge a whole community by the actions of a sizeable minority? Are white people in Surrey judged by the knife crime in Glasgow? Of course not.  Will the many strands of the black/African-Caribbean community ever be considered as more than just a homogenous, dysfunctional mass?

 

I think you know the answer. But until such a time all this talk of a ‘responsibility revolution’ is just that: talk. Daily Mail and Evening Standard headlines aside, most black families are already ‘responsible,’ and the ones who are not may need a little more than a public telling-off from political opportunists to become so.

 

We no longer live in communities. Villages no longer raise children; their peers and environment do. And if we are going talk about failed parenting, we should also talk about failed childhoods. Young people nowadays grow up quickly, aided in part by a slow procession of government legislation that, in trying to protect the child, has only served to elevate them above the adult.

 

If children are a reflection of their parents, then society is a reflection of its government. Fathers of all races have a doubtless responsibility to their children. But as the father of the nation, the government has a responsibility to its people.

 

Akua Richards is with Rice'n'peas Magazine, where this piece first appeared.

 

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