Black people are affected by "Amazon Tree Frog Syndrome", according to Shaun Bailey, a youth and community worker and witness for the Home Affairs Select Committee which is currently hearing evidence relating to Young Black People and the British Criminal Justice System. In his analogy, Bailey says:
"in the Amazon if something happens in the ecosystem, the little green tree frogs die first."
He suggests that black people are the first casualties in societal breakdown. Mr Bailey is amongst the many witnesses, who include young people, activists, youth workers, police and church ministers, called to present evidence at the Select Committee.
The transcripts of the evidence make interesting reading, raising many questions for me as a black woman, mother and sister. I wait in anticipation for both answers and recommendations that will remedy an "ailing ecosystem" and prevent the death of black hope in British society.
Primarily, I am motivated by strong maternal instinct to ensure the survival of my progeny at any cost. I am raising boys who I hope will be fathers and eventually grandfathers, making their way, building successful, worthwhile lives in this society.
My angst arises from evidence gathered throughout my life - from what I have seen, heard and experienced; in the lives of those around me; in views and stories conveyed by the media. In the cities of London, Manchester and Birmingham for example, we have children as young as 9 dealing in drugs, youth between 10 and 17 who are both victims and perpetrators of gun-related crime. Reaching epidemic proportions over the past year, deaths from such crimes have been reported on almost a monthly basis. In London alone, there have been 8 teenagers killed in gang-related violence since January.
We also have a ratio of 2 black youth in prison for every 1 in university. There is disproportionate representation of black youth in custody and until now, no-one has examined why this is. The evidence also suggests that young black men receive harsher sentences than their white counterparts.
Out on the streets we learn that the gladiatorial-style "fight-to-the death" battles are all about "respect". When we delve deeper, we discover that we are growing a generation of lost youth. Maslow’s 'hierarchy-of-needs' suggests we have to experience "love" before we can gain "respect". Putting it crudely, are black youth dying due to a lack of love? If respect is not given, it is taken: it is that fundamental.
The undercurrent of racism as experienced by the less empowered (i.e. BME communities) can of course never be ruled out as a negative factor. It's environmental, we also know that those living in inner city areas are disproportionately affected by poverty which reduces life chances; increasing the risk of ill health, mental illness; poor education and unemployment. This cycle of deprivation is easily repeated with teenage parents (my folks used to say "pickney a have pickney fe pickney"), drugs on the street, crime and violence; leading to a loss of hope. My angst arises from resulting loss to families, society and the nation as a whole.
Camila Batmanghelidjh founder of two inner London children's charities sees institutional failings as being significant:
"It is about adult incompetencies, primarily in the social care agencies that are supposed to intervene on behalf of vulnerable children… the unspoken policy has been to wait until a young person commits a crime, rather than intervene robustly, so that they become the responsibility of the criminal justice system"
So does all this add up to a modern version of the child catcher (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), ridding society of black hopes; robbing us of our future?
The problems associated with young black people and the British Criminal Justice System, are multi-factorial. I have briefly touched upon a few issues, but there are many more to unravel. For now I have to put my faith in the Select Committee to do its job; using evidence to enlighten and inform society, initiating a positive sea change in the way black youth are dealt with.
It goes without saying that racism is a contributory factor, but it does not absolve us as black parents, of our responsibilities for raising our children to play a full and productive part in society.
I want to make a selfish plea as a black parent- to my fellow black parents, call it self preservation. I want to secure our survival, ruling out death on the streets or incarceration, at any costs. Nobody can love, understand or nurture our children like we can- we cannot leave it to the State. In building a better future in this society for our children, we must play our full part.
If as black men and women, we do not trust what the State or society has to offer, we need to contribute to creating a model that we find acceptable. If there are concerns surrounding how children are taught, we need more black teachers and educationalists. If there is mistrust in the Criminal Justice System, we need more black police officers, lawyers, barristers, judges and MPs. Remember respect cannot be learnt on the streets, it begins in the home, with loving and valuing ourselves, our relationships and our children.
To find out more (Young Black People and the British Criminal Justice System), visit; read the report.
© Karen Plumb, June 2007 (all rights reserved)
Karen, who also writes as KrPoet, has had work published in Brown Eyes, edited by Nicole Moore, 2005, and has previously contributed to unheardwords.