Opinionista Khadija Patel 12 August 2011

‘Angry black men’ may have good reason to be just that

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg dug $30 million out of his own pocket to set up the “Young Men’s Initiative” last week. Jo’burgers  reading about Bloomberg’s generous contribution must wish mayor Tau had similar funds to throw at the billing chaos. Third world problems certainly cloud the more first-world of our ambitions. But then first-world problems are often just third-world ones dressed in better clothes.

The Young Men’s Initiative was introduced after a study conducted by Bloomberg’s office found overwhelming inequalities between black and Latino men and their white counterparts. The study is a damning indictment on a socio-economic inequality expressed in racial terms. The poverty rate for blacks and Latino men is 50% higher than that of young white and Asian men. The rate of unemployment is a whopping 60% higher. Black and Latino men are twice as likely to drop out of high school and even more likely to become teen fathers.  Black and Latino men are also less likely to have access to quality early childhood care and education, causing significant achievement gaps to appear as early as third grade.

When Bloomberg was elected to New York City’s highest office for a third time, he promised to make closing the “achievement gap” for black and Latino men a focal point of his final term. In keeping with that vision, the Young Men’s Initiative is intended to help 315,000 New Yorkers by overhauling the city’s probation systems and education agencies. So far, much of the criticism levelled at Bloomberg’s programme is at the funding. Bloomberg has twisted the arm of fellow billionaire George Soros to match his own contribution so half of the three-year project will be financed by the foundations of Bloomberg and Soros, while $67.5 million will come from the city budget. Questions have been raised about Bloomberg’s overlapping roles as politician and philanthropist, but so far the programme itself has escaped scrutiny.

Under it, the city’s probation department will be overhauled entirely. Five satellite probation offices will be opened in neighbourhoods with the highest crime rates with the noble intention of connecting men on probation with work and educational opportunities and mitigating the tendency to recidivism. The programme will also include job placement, fatherhood classes and training for probation officers and school staff on how to help these young men get ahead. So far, the programme has passed muster. It has all the looks of being well-intentioned and well-planned. But it also seems to have taken a turn for the bizarre. 

The programme includes “yoga to help young men control their anger”. It seems black men, scary, angry young black men will be cured of their fiery temper by a trip to the yoga mat. Hold me back.

The “angry black male” is one of America’s most enduring stereotypes. It  hinges on the notion that black people are oversensitive, unreasonable and quick to anger and has its origins in the dark world of slavery. During slavery, white men feared black men like Nat Turner who resisted slavery. These were the black men who led slave insurrections and were sold further South. They were called “Bucks”. The Buck was the opposite of the minstrel, the happy, silly Negro who is such fun to have around. The angry black man stereotype has outlasted slavery. Black militants in the civil rights movement, black male rap artists have all been cast as angry black men, shouting off against God-knows-what.

Barack Obama himself has spent much of  his life and campaigning trying to disavow any association  with the “Angry Black Man” stereotype. In “Dreams From My Father,” he acknowledges the benefits of turning against that 1960s stereotype of black militancy: “I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds. One of those tricks I had learned: People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves. They were more than satisfied; they were relieved – such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn’t seem angry all the time.”

Bloomberg’s study does indeed find that more than 90% of all young homicide victims and perpetrators are either black or Latino. It is a shocking, alarming finding. It does not, however, prove the angry black man stereotype. Frequent trips to the yoga mat will not see young men turn to meditation instead of their guns. There is a greater malaise underpinning these statistics that Bloomberg’s programme does nothing to correct.

These statistics are hardly unique to NYC.

Seamus Milne writing in The Guardian ties the source of the riots that spread through England this week with the crippling rate of inequality expressed along racial divides in the UK: “There’s no mystery as to where the upheaval came from. It was triggered by the police killing a young black man in a country where black people are 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than their white counterparts. The riot that exploded in Tottenham in response at the weekend took place in an area with the highest unemployment in London, whose youth clubs have been closed to meet a 75% cut in its youth services budget.

“It then erupted across what is now by some measures the most unequal city in the developed world, where the wealth of the richest 10% has risen to 273 times that of the poorest, drawing in young people who have had their educational maintenance allowance axed just as official youth unemployment has reached a record high and university places are being cut back under the weight of a tripling of tuition fees.”

As much as David Cameron now mouths off about responsibilities over rights, promising to use water cannons and threatening to disrupt social networks, why exactly were these men so primed to riot? While preaching responsibility, Cameron, and leaders like him across the world, would do well to realise a sense of responsibility to the people and not the elite.

Darcus Howe, a West Indian writer and broadcaster, speaking on BBC News 24 about the cause behind what he called an “insurrection of the masses” was asked by the anchor, Fiona Armstrong, whether he had participated in any riots himself.

“You are not a stranger to riots yourself I understand, are you? You have taken part in them yourself?” she asked. “I have never taken part in a single riot. I’ve been on demonstrations that ended up in a conflict,” Howe responded, visibly annoyed. “Have some respect for an old West Indian negro and stop accusing me of being a rioter because you wanted for me to get abusive. You just sound idiotic ? have some respect.” It was a stunning altercation, steeped in prejudice. After receiving complaints from viewers who thought Armstrong was “rude” during the interview, the BBC has now been forced to apologise for the ill-phrased question. Howe’s points in that fiery exchange remain succinct. If black men are indeed angry, they have good reason to be. 

South Africa, gleefully watching the British squirm, has little reason to be smug. DM

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