letters: letters@sunday-times.co.uk

Speaking out: Tony Sewell on the high percentage of absent black fathers

Sunday Times (Magazine)
Sunday 10th October 2004

'Lots of our men are insecure'

When I write articles about problems within the black community, the BNP
puts parts of them up on their website. Because people use what you say
against you, there is a reluctance among the black community to talk openly.
The internal discussions go on, but many people won't speak out beyond that
because they feel they will always be misunderstood.

Since the Brixton riots and Scarman report in 1981, the situation for black
people in the UK has improved profoundly. Before, there were so many cases
of black youths being beaten up by the police, and overt racism. We've moved
to a point where we have to look beyond racism to more immediate problems.
We have one of the highest percentages in the country of single mothers -
48%, according to the Home Office.

Black fathers have not been there for those boys. We've grown up on this
liberal ideal where single mothers are expected to cope - but boys want
their dads around. If you talk to black men in prison, they continually come
back to this issue: 'The old man, he wasn't there.'

They grow up with a dad who's rejected them and a mother who's
overindulgent. By the time their hormones kick in at 14, they go out and
perpetuate the same situation. Partly they may be reliving their own
experiences of absent fathers. Part of it is that the woman is often in a
faster lane than them. Lots of our men are insecure. One day they hit her,
in frustration, and it breaks down, and off they go.

There's also a perceived masculinity about having lots of kids and lots of
women. If you've left school with nothing, one thing that's free is sex.
Some of the women have to take responsibility too. They need to say they
need the men - not just their money, but their time.

We need to know what's happening in the black family, but nobody is
collecting the data. You're more likely to get a grant to look at
institutional racism. The government shows a reluctance to go into that
area. There's a danger that there will be a generation of girls who go off
to university and a generation of boys who go off to jail. It's painful to

We have a disproportionate number of young black men in mental institutions.
These are men who could have gone to university. What's happened in their
lives? In school, young black males are often rejected by their teacher, who
might fear them. But they are accepted by a peer group which is only
interested in their gangsta credentials. Millions have been spent on
mentoring programmes for 16-year-olds, but they're too late: the cement is
so hard by then. We need to go after 7- to 11-year-olds, remodel another
type of future for them.

I'm running a programme called Generating Genius, where we take a group of
11-year-old boys to Jamaica every summer for three years. They stay on the
University of the West Indies campus and do a mini-degree in medicine and
the performing arts. In America they did this at Temple University and 80%
of them went on to become doctors. It gives them resilience to resist peer
pressure when they come back. Music companies and big business should
support this initiative - it isn't about giving black children a second
chance, it's about getting it right the first time.

Teachers need to challenge black boys and impose discipline. I did a survey
where I asked black teenagers what the key issues were that were stopping
them from learning. They said: 'The teachers aren't strict enough with us.'
The ones they respected were those who cared enough to go after their bad

We should be working with parents more. As it's the fathers who are key, I'd
look for court orders. If you produce a child, you should have to be
responsible for it. You should have to spend a minimum time with your
offspring. Black men have relied for too long on black women or the state to
do the parenting.

Tony Sewell is a nonexecutive director of the Learning Trust in Hackney