By Kerri Parke
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The real role models are not in the boardroom

This article is over 14 years, 11 months old
There has been much talk recently about the need for black role models as the answer to the problem of gun and knife crime that has blighted so many lives this year.
Issue 2067

There has been much talk recently about the need for black role models as the answer to the problem of gun and knife crime that has blighted so many lives this year.

The visits of US civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and Nelson Mandela to Britain saw both speak about this issue.

The New Nation newspaper has just published its list of the top 100 Black Britons, saying the search for new role models is unnecessary because they already exist.

But its 100 people are all heads of companies, work in the City or are Labour peers. As a socialist, I’m against all forms of discrimination, including in the top echelons of business and the police.

But who decided that these are the kinds of people that we should aspire to be?

Why are the role models always of this ilk? Why are they never teachers, nurses, or paramedics, for example?

These are the people who mean something, and without who the country would come to a standstill. Nothing creative or caring is ever recognised as successful.

The list that the New Nation proposes is one of people who have proved that they are just as capable of exploiting people as some white people are.

Why are they so proud of the fact that a black man is the chief operating officer at Tate & Lyle, a company that made its money from slavery?

A few years ago, Doreen Lawrence would have been in that list, but only for being the brave mother of a murdered teenager.

Now she has started asking questions about the way our society works. Does this mean that she is no longer considered to be a worthy role model?


Other people have attacked the black community for failing to do more to show young black people a positive influence.

This is not a new argument and many people have been trying to address it for years.

It is yet another kick in the teeth to black people in this country and an insult to the efforts we have put into protecting young black people from the racism they encounter.

In the absence of statutory provision, black voluntary, community and faith organisations have provided vital grassroots support to vulnerable young people.

What we are witnessing is a knee-jerk response to the recent tragic deaths of young people.

Role models are being presented as if they’re the key to this problem – and so now the search is on to find them.

The idea that you simply show off people who have “made it” supports the notion that the reason why black people don’t have equality is something in ourselves.

The refrain of the successful is, “We can do it, so why can’t you?”

The same was said to the women’s movement in the 1990s when women were told that “the glass ceiling had been shattered”.

Today there are many women directors of companies, but women still don’t have equality.

The black community has yet again found itself under attack for not doing enough to address the problems of our young people.

But these problems are not of black people’s making – they are down to the institutional racism that we face.

Hardly anyone has raised the possibility that things like racism, poverty or high unemployment should be addressed if the problems of gun and knife crime are going to be tackled.


When people live in sub-standard housing, they often have low expectations of themselves.

When they are disproportionately excluded from schools, they are likely to lose respect for such institutions.

Black people face the highest unemployment rates, and infant mortality rates among the Caribbean community are twice those of white communities.

If nothing is done to address this then many will continue to think that society shows nothing but contempt for them.

Only when issues like these are addressed will we see this violent expression of alienation cease.

Also why is the issue of violent crime presented as a “black problem”?

It is something that affects all communities, in a society that the free market is ripping apart.

Jesse Jackson has been the only prominent black leader to offer an argument remotely raising these issues.

He has helped kickstart a campaign in Britain to put black communities on a level economic playing field.

This wants to put the spotlight on poverty and the economic inequality that still exists.

But even this is often too focused on getting changes at the top.

Chuka Umunna, editor of the online TMP magazine, says, “Real power is exercised in the conference, board and dealing rooms of the City.”

I beg to differ.

The real power in our society, though often hidden, lies in the hands of those that create the wealth and they are people of all colours.

They have the power to withdraw that labour to raise demands for equality and an end to discrimination.

It is these people that should be part of a sober debate about what is happening in our society because they have a stake in it and are best placed to come up with solutions.

The world of a City banker or an oil trader is a million miles away from the world of poor young people.

But the world of the teacher or the nurse is much closer. The African-American writer Alice Walker said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

It’s time to remember that it is ordinary people who have that power and that we have used it to get real change in our society in the past.

And it is grassroots actions and campaigns that will make the difference to young people’s lives in the future.

Kerri Parke is the coordinator for the Tell It Like It Is campaign. She writes here in a personal capacity.

The book Tell It Like It Is: How Our Schools Fail Black Children is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to »

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