Does Black Culture Hurt Black Boys?

By Miranda Pyne



AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Photo: Rap stars, from left, Redman, foreground, DMX, Methodman and Jay-Z join host DJ Clue, background left, after announcing their 40-city "Hard Knock Life" tour.

About the Author

Miranda Pyne is a writer living in London.


In Britain, as in the United States, recent claims that "black youth culture" is to blame for academic underperformance of black boys have set off arguments among black leaders and academics. To many the idea seems dredged up from a more conservative time, complete with a sexist note of alarm. Yet others seem relieved to have found a possible culprit behind the vexing problem of educational inequality here in the UK, where black boys are suspended and drop out at rates many times that of whites.

Tony Sewell, a black Leeds University Lecturer and journalist, says it's simple; youth culture "does not inspire intellectual interest. It is actually to do with propping up a big commercial culture, to do with selling trainers [sneakers], selling magazines, rap music and so on." Leeds goes on to accuse the black community of being unwilling to confront the detrimental role black youth culture might play in children's school lives. "I am also tired of hearing the excuse that black students are failing because the curriculum is too Eurocentric. Let's get real."

Official figures show that nationwide, Afro-Caribbean children are four times more likely than whites to be suspended from school. And a study last year found Afro-Caribbean boys were often the lowest-performing students in England, especially on national exams. Sewell, who recently completed an investigation into the reasons for the high rate of school exclusions among black boys and girls, claims that the disturbingly high percentage of children consumed with money and goods is having almost as damaging an effect on their chances as racism. These children perceived "culture to be more important than anything else," to the detriment of their self-esteem and intellectual capabilities. "Black children had gained much needed self-esteem from their youth culture becoming part of the mainstream. But that culture is not one that, for example, is interested in being a great chess player, or intellectual activity."

Lee Jasper, who advises London Mayor Ken Livingstone on race relations, sees things differently. "I don't believe any community can suffer the levels of unemployment and missed education that we have had without suffering from the kinds of problems that are now apparent. The problems suffered by black youth were more to do with racism in that black families were more likely to live in poor housing, be unemployed and be excluded from school."

But Sewell's not alone in condemning black youth culture, on either side of the pond. Ronald Ferguson, a black professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, has claimed that rap music has a direct correlation with declining academic achievement, reporting that in 1988 when the first rap album by Public Enemy entered the US charts, 35 per cent of black students said they read every day for pleasure and that four years later that figure had fallen to 14 per cent. Over the years, several critics have lamented lyrics that boast misogyny, homophobia, drugs, money, greed and violence.

And nobody denies that England's black children have suffered serious problems at school for some time. A 1991 survey found that of 449 pupils in the northern city of Nottingham given formal warnings, suspensions or expulsions, nearly one in four was black out of a population of fewer than 1,000 black schoolchildren. But this study, which did not lay blame on youth culture or rap music, concluded that black children's body language leads teachers to think they are looking for trouble. The survey also pointed out that the teachers interviewed were mostly ignorant of black culture, especially when it came to disciplining students.

"There is a raft of evidence that white female teachers find black boys intimidating, difficult to deal with," Jasper says. "They have an expectation about their behaviors, which tends to dictate the quality of their teaching." A ground-breaking report on this issue published by the Runnymede Trust outlined similar themes, and Maxie Hayles, chair of the Birmingham [England] Racial Attacks Monitoring Unit, told the UN that black children are often typecast by teachers as disruptive and less intelligent than white pupils laying the foundation for a damaging "self-fulfilling prophecy."

Britain's Commission for Racial Equality reported in a 1993 national survey that children having problems in English, especially those from black and Asian backgrounds, were treated as though they had learning difficulties; that Afro-Caribbean students in Birmingham schools were four times more likely than whites to be suspended; that black and Asian pupils were often expected to fail by their teachers; that black pupils were encouraged to go for the "soft" subjects such as sports; and that of 20,000 teachers in eight cities studied, only 400 were from minority ethnic groups, with 80 per cent of these staff at the bottom of the wage scale.

When asked the question, "Do schools treat ethnic minorities worse?" the study found 13 per cent of white respondents said yes, compared with 15 per cent of Asians and 38 per cent of black respondents.

Questions arise of gender as well as race, however. A wider debate is taking place worldwide and locally, as studies show boys of all races doing badly in exams in England, with girls generally doing better. In fact, experts say, the lower achievements of Afro-Caribbean boys are roughly mirrored by those of white working class boys. Educational attainment has long been linked to social class, and some of the ostensible differences in achievement between minority ethnic groups may yet be reflections of class differences.

Most black-oriented organizations in the UK caution against crying institutional racism in all cases of social exclusion, but research appears to show that endemic racism is alive pathologically well, even and affecting black boys. While there have been no national or international studies on the effects of rap music on young listeners, it seems there are plenty of explanations for these children's poor performance closer to home not in the record stores but in the classroom.