Playing the race card belittles success stories

Simon Fanshawe on Leroy, 19. Tall, good looking, Leroy has ‘mus-cols’. He tried dealing drugs but decided it was not ‘worth dying for’. Now he is doing a part-time training course for young volunteers in peer mediation and conflict resolution skills. Today Leroy believes in education but had to lie his way into college

Leroy is 19. He told me his story at a conference I was chairing about community conflict. After the opening, the delegates all went off to yak about the policy in hand and I went to meet four young people I was going to interview in the plenary about actually living the issue.

Leroy is tall, obviously good looking, and possessed of a certain physical and social grace. Articulate, he still has a certain reserve. He talks with the angular emphasis and those staccato breaths so typical of young black guys. He pronounces muscles “mus-cols”. Why he was talking about them will be evident shortly.

To prep me and him for the interview he sketched a brief arc of his life. He was fostered from a very early age. I didn’t ask why. He does know his birth parents – he has contact with them – but he said with the poignancy of a wounded ego on the cusp of youth and manhood: “I’ve never had a mother who could say she loved me.”

Throughout the rest of his story, he talks about education constantly. It’s the undercurrent of his life and is the core of his attempts to survive. The “gang thing” started at school. They’re young men and the prize is girls, cars and designer clothes. Money and status, in other words. But it never sat well with him. He tried dealing drugs but “it was too much like hard work,” and more than that, “just not worth dying for”.

Leroy is part of an organisation called Leap, which has a project called The Quarrell Shop, a “part-time training course for young volunteers in peer mediation and conflict resolution skills”. It’s a remarkable process through which young people discover trust and potential and the power of resolution.

They are going to be interviewed by me on the platform in front of several hundred delegates and it is crucial that they are clear about what they do and don’t want to say in public. I am not John Humphrys on the BBC Radio Four Today Programme, with his trip-wire out for politicians. I am giving them a platform to talk about their lives in the way they want to and with confidence that they can trust me.

But I push firmly for the truth. Leroy tells me that he knew the young black man who had mugged and stabbed a guy at a cash point in Hackney a few months before. A discussion ensues among the young people, me and one of the workers from the Leap Project. She insists that these kind of crimes have their roots, in Hackney’s case, in “slavery, institutional racism and the government’s failure to invest”.

A gulf opens up in the conversation. What she has said seems to me to take away the power of any of the personal choices Leroy has made – or, for that matter, those the stabber had made. It’s as if they are both just powerless objects, swept inexorably around by social forces, any personal agency in their fate denied.

My mouth drops open. Leroy beats me to it. Laconically, he says: “But this guy had money. He came to my place once and he saw my weights. He lifted them. And I tried to tell him that you get your ‘mus-cols’ not for violence but to feel good about yourself.”

To get where he is today, which is doing an A-level in PE and sport science, Leroy has had to lie. But he has lied his way into college. He told them he had some GCSEs. For some reason, he has always known that education will be his escape. It’s the difference between him and his friends.

What I took away from that day and from Leroy is that if we try to use our understanding of the big forces that shape our worlds not to understand behaviour but to excuse it, then we take away choice from people like Leroy. He doesn’t want the stabber in Hackney to be excused; he wants him to go to college. The Leaving Care project in Hackney, and the educational maintenance allowance, have, in their own ways, given Leroy his springboard. But what has driven him on has been his own choice. Personal decision is the inspiration for living. Leroy doesn’t want alibis. He wants a life.

ยท Some names have been changed. Simon Fanshawe is a writer and broadcaster. This is the first in a series of individual portraits.

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