Rod Liddle was branded a ‘national disgrace’ when he wrote about how black boys are paying the price for growing up in households without their dads. But he’s right. The disproportionate number of black boys held in youth offending centres, which I visited during my time as a member of the youth justice board, shocked me. Many of those I encountered had been involved in knife crime. So what was going wrong? I did what many sociologists have failed to do: I asked them. These boys knew I wouldn’t stand for any spin about racism or the closure of the local youth club. Without such excuses, nearly all pointed to the absence of their fathers as a key problem in their lives. It was straightforward: for these boys, the restraints were off and they were simply left to fend for themselves.
Another interesting factor was the lack of responsibility these boys had for their crimes. All of them maintained that they were innocent. This ‘not me guv’ attitude even came from those who were caught red handed with a knife. There is evidence to show that black boys are more likely to plead not guilty to crimes than their white counterparts. Inevitably, this leads to longer sentences when they are found guilty. So what was the reason for this state of denial among these young men? It was often to do with respect: I felt justified killing my brother, the argument went, because he disrespected me. Sadly, this counted as a plausible excuse for many of those raised in a moral vacuum without a dad on hand to stop them from straying. Many of these boys reminded me of Hamlet: their absent fathers haunted their lives. They looked instead to their peers. All too often, this is where things started to go badly wrong.
This problem of absent dads isn’t going away: in Britain, the black ethnic group has the highest proportion of lone parent households at 13 per cent. There is a culture among some black men of producing children without taking responsibility. Inevitably, these children end up paying the price.
This isn’t to say that dysfunctional families – or absent dads – are a unique problem among black British people. It is also worth making clear that when families, black or otherwise, break up, it doesn’t always lead to problems. Fathers can be replaced by aunts and grandmothers. Men have had to raise children who aren’t their own. Children have called non-blood relatives mum and dad. But in the absence of a nuclear family, an extended family and wider community is vital. Sadly, this is often lacking. Without this support network in place, mums (or, in some cases, dads) raising kids on their own can only do so much to save their children from the grip of gangs and the lure of knives.
Other factors have worsened this problem in recent years. The steady decline of male adult authority outside the family has been undermined by worries over child abuse. The availability of welfare and housing provided to single working-class mothers has also lessened the risk of – or need for – putting up with flaky men.
The result has been that a new generation of black and white boys have been raised without the much-needed permanent presence of their fathers. Half of black children have no dad living at home. This absence is sorely felt and has arguably been the root cause for poor school performance and the rise of knife crime.
But amidst this misery, there is a solution. My programme, Generating Genius, aims to find the brightest students from inner cities and provide an out of school programme that takes them to our top universities. Given the right support, these high-flying black teenagers thrive. Yet more needs to be done to provide other black boys with mentors who can inspire them. A harder thing to face up to is the need to get fathers to take care of their children. We need to see absent fatherhood as fundamentally damaging. This means viewing it on the same level as forced marriages. After all, without dads to guide impressionable boys, trouble is never far away. It is only by realising this that we can break a cycle of misery that is leading to young men – many of them black – ruining their own and others’ lives.
Dr Tony Sewell is CEO of the charity Generating Genius