The world as we would like it to be would provide a special space for the innocence of childhood. We tell our children that with focus and hard work, and a little bit of luck, they can be whoever and whatever they want. But this is not the world as we would like it to be, and today there is evidence that some of that innocence is lost and childhood aspirations have been blunted. Aim high, we say; imagine there is no ceiling. But perhaps they know too much.
Research for BBC Newsround reveals that one in five black children aged eight to 14 believe their skin colour could hinder their job prospects. Just 2% of white children felt the same anxiety, along with 13% of the children polled of Asian origin.
Twenty-one per cent of black children felt their skin colour would make it harder to succeed in the future and 40% imagined their teachers might describe them as clever, compared with 46% of white children, 39% of Asian and 47% of mixed or other origins.
One of those polled told Newsround that “this generation is still being judged and stereotyped so it’s going to be difficult for us to do what we want to do when we’re older”.
It’s no surprise that young black people hold these views. In other generations it was accepted that the playing field was not level. The generation schooled in the 1970s, 80s and 90s were repeatedly told by parents and other adults that the only safe course was to assume that there was no equality of opportunity. Work twice as hard, was the standard advice. But it wasn’t advice for an eight-year-old. At eight, we hoped that children could still thrive in a bubble of hope and aspiration, shielded from the realities of unequal employment, policing, schooling. If an eight-year-old can’t exist in that bubble, a bad situation must have got worse.
The Oscar-winning film director Steve McQueen, who is making a BBC drama on the lives of a black family, declared the situation upsetting.
“When I was at school myself, there was this situation where black children were not deemed as intelligent or deemed to be able to go on to do anything of any real purpose,” he said. “The circle has to be broken – it’s upsetting to think that it hasn’t. When you narrow people’s possibilities then they become narrow.”
There is reality and perception. On the one hand, young black people face an unemployment rate of almost 45%. In the first three months of last year, the number of African-Caribbean inmates in youth offender institutions, secure training centres and children’s homes rose 10.4%, while for white youths in custody it fell 42%. On the other hand, black teenagers are more likely to apply to university than white youngsters.
There are possibilities to focus on, but also gravitational pull to fight against. The dampening effect of race and – as is also the case with white working-class children with low aspirations and achievement – the heavy millstone of class.
In the BBC survey, 25% of white children, 30% of black and 24% of Asian children said they wanted to be footballers; 27% of black children and 21% of white said that they wanted to be musicians or rappers. Not doctors, or pilots, or journalists, or judges. They cite professions that seem attainable because they see people they identify with doing them: the value of role models.
The MP and former minister David Lammy – later to become a barrister and product of Harvard University – urged universities to better consider the backgrounds of applicants as part of the selection process on the basis that “if you’re on the 15th floor of a tower block in London and you manage to get an A and two Bs despite sharing two bedrooms with seven brothers and sisters and having a single mum … you are as bright as that child from Chelsea who’s had the benefit of tutoring,” he told the BBC. That’s addressing the reality. But then there is the perception. I once made a young black teenage drug dealer explain to me the processes of his work: the buying, the selling, the calculations, the judgments, all conducted under threat of violence and arrest. I put to him that bankers and traders have much the same skill set. “Who’s going to give me that kind of job?” he asked. That’s also within the cycle that needs breaking. – By Hugh Muir © Guardian News and Media 2014
Image – AFP