Acting White, Acting Posh

December 16, 2008

When Hillary and Obama were arguing about who would invest most in getting disadvantaged kids to university, black Harvard Professor Roland Fryer appeared on TV to contradict them. He said that poverty was not holding these kids back, but the negative peer pressure of the community. I instantly knew that the professor was right, because exactly the same thing happened to me.

Fryer’s study was entitled “Acting White” and concerned itself with the way that black Americans use peer pressure to stop their brightest youngsters from getting educated, or from “selling out” by “acting white.”. His study is not peculiar to black Americans. The arguments put forward were striking to my own experience of growing up in white working-class east London. In fact where ever you go in the world, marginalised communities will tend to build a wall around themselves. Fryer argues that this happens when two communities live side by side, where one community is more successful than the other. In his case, black Americans, in mine, the white working class. If a young person is bright, then the community pressures that young person not to go to university, for fear that they will lose this young person to the more successful group; the white middle class.

In my case it was pressure from my mates. “I’m earning hundred pound a week driving a van and you’re still at school. What a prat.” The pressure was not my parents, (although that happens to others) but it was still enough to cause me to drop out and get a job. After flitting across various unskilled employs, I finally did the best thing I’ve ever done in my life; I took-off to Israel and lived on a Kibbutz. It made me realise that the world is a lot bigger than the Ocean Estate in Stepney, and I overcame the mentality of the walled-in community.

Labour party members will recognise the manner in which the working-class build a wall about them. Party canvassers will recognise the family on the run-down estate who seem to have an absolute contempt for Labour and say they’ll vote Tory or BNP. This is not a voting promise based on self-interest, or ideology, but more a contemptuous rejection of your middle-class values by a people who feel threatened by well-intentioned outsiders. They consider you as, “these do-gooders with their posh accents and stuck up noses, come around here like they own the place. Well we’ve got each other, and that’s something they can never take that away from us”. However, this walled-in attitude is potentially undermined if the daughter of this family is bright enough that a teacher starts encouraging her that she could make it to University. The youngster, on approaching her family about this idea, would be ridiculed by her parents and she would quickly revert to being contemptuous of the teacher, for her, “posh accent and stuck up nose”. If the socialist movement is ever to truly bring education to the masses, then we must break down these walls. I believe the gap-year is the answer because it takes the youngster out of the walled-in community and allows her to consider the world for herself.

To me the problem is not whether this is the right solution; it is the right solution, but the problem is in how to do the implementation. Who is responsible for young people who are between school and work? It seems to me that the moment a young person leaves school, the relationship between school and pupil comes to an abrupt end. Can you imagine that the moment a bird flies the nest is the moment she is abandoned by the mother? As if the responsibility is over. Kaput! End of relationship. Or do you imagine that while most chicks fly from the nest and just keep on flying without looking back, some are less successful and flutter to the ground, where the mother comes to encourage her chick to flap her wings and keep on trying? I’d say the latter is typical of nature while the former is typical of policy, and whenever policy goes against nature we should question it carefully.

It is necessary for schools to continue to be responsible for their students beyond the term of education. For a school to invest 5-7 years of effort into an individual only to abandon the child at the completion of the contract does appear to go against all common sense. If a partnership between the Local Authority and the schools existed to identify youngsters who would be suitable for this scheme, then opportunities can be offered. These need not be ostentatious trips; it would be far better to have schemes that cause the youngsters to get jobs and work their way through, but the important thing is simply to inspire them to go; to break out of the mentality of the estate and to discover who they are in the big wide world.

The End