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Black Brit Academic Assailed


By Caroline wa Kamau

Tony Sewell is the black lecturer in education at Leeds University who has been appointed by Britain's Commission for Racial Equality to investigate the "lack of interest in education” among black youths. Sewell's claims that black "youth culture" and "peer pressure" is to blame have been reported in several English national newspapers and in television news programs.

Sewell has, foolishly, examined the concept of culture and that of academic interest out of the context of the environment and history of the groups of people concerned. Culture is, in itself, the product of tradition, experience, beliefs, ability and facilities. It should similarly be obvious that variables such as accumulated history, social climate, and presence as well as perception of academic opportunity, should be considered.

How it is that Sewell has concluded that variable A leads to behavior B, without rigorous testing, is a mystery. What is Sewell's methodology? Why should research on black people be exempted from the rules of scientific research? The race, qualifications, previous achievements, or even personal experiences of a researcher have no relevance whatsoever or bearing on the validity of a suggested hypothesis. If research for the Commission for Racial Equality is undertaken in the flippant manner exemplified by Tony Sewell, there is little hope for those expected to benefit.

All human beings are free agents, and although most engage in conformity, 
they do not do so without reason. Black youths are not demagogic. Only with subliminal cueing, perhaps, can music directly influence the behavior of a listener, and only with severe coercion can diminished interest in academia be attributed to peer pressure. Sewell is under the misguided impression that all hip-hop music has commercialist and violent connotations, and the even more laughably misguided belief that rap messages "catch" - almost like Influenza. Again, hip-hop cannot be examined out of context. Materialism among some African-Americans, for example, came into existence as soon as ex-slaves arrived in the north and strove to improve their social esteem. In any case, modern society is exceedingly capitalistic in general.

Early hip-hop artists rapped about the suffering of blacks in racist America, and there are countless artists who have maintained hip-hop's original themes. The genre of rap geared for commercial success is not representative of hip-hop, yet it is this that Sewell associates with "black culture" (exactly what is "black culture"?). Puff Daddy would not be considered to be a rapper by most authentic hip-hop lovers, who are most likely to testify that the hip-hop album of the year is Like Water for Chocolate by Common, that Lauryn Hill is the best female rapper, and that D'Angelo is a Soul genius. None of these artists can be associated with materialism or violence, yet it is the likes of these that those who love hip-hop would look to as role models.

The albums sold in independent black record shops are ignored by "national" charts. The goings-on and conversations of black youths around the country are unbeknown to Sewell and mainstream society.

What, exactly, is Sewell's definition of black culture, and in what capacity has it been embraced by mainstream society? Real black culture has never been accepted. National radio is hard pressed to air even the most watered-down of black music; stations such as Choice FM and Jazz FM are never nationalized; black writers receive little attention from publishers and public libraries are ill-equipped with black literature; blacks are not proportionately represented on television; black movies are seldom screened in cinemas nationwide. Sewell's claim that black culture is about to seep into white society and do damage is a strange one indeed.

Why is it that, despite hip-hop and African-American culture being very popular among youths in African countries, there are no reports of this having a negative impact on their education? The issue of race, and the possibility of racial prejudice in education settings, as well as the lack of economic resources, should be the CRE's main focus. Only until there are no more racists on the face of the earth will any institution be exempt from manifestations of racism.

Sewell's assumption that black youths are not interested in intellectual activity is disturbing. His reference to chess playing, for example, supports western society's expectation that blacks wholeheartedly embrace western culture and “intellectualism.” Works by great black writers, jazz music, a history of Africa and its politics, a history of black peoples around the world, and psychological theories relevant to the adjustment of black people in white society, should be taught extensively in schools. Without that, how can black students feel that academia values them, their contributions and their experience?

Sewell is not a spokesperson for the black race, and his efforts to please white society as well as the egotistic belief that he is a "leading black" academic, have hampered his common sense.

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