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Gary Younge
Mixed up on race

My two brothers and I were raised by my mother who was, in turn, raised by her mother. I am married to an African-American; both my brothers are married to white women (one Irish, one English). For my four small nephews and nieces, who range in skin tone from latte to pecan, the "formal Caribbean family" with two Caribbean parents is not "a thing of the past" (as described in Richard Berthoud's report on page 5) because it never existed in our past.

But this is family, not demography. We meet not under the pall of socio-cultural meltdown but to compare waistlines, reminisce and play Connect 4 against a backdrop of toddlers' shrieks. The statistics suggest that, as people of Caribbean descent, we are at the end of an era, but all I see is the beginning of a new generation.

The statistics are not the problem. Berthoud's work is an intelligent, sensitive examination of complex and important issues. The problem is the unintelligent and insensitive conclusions that some will jump to in order to confirm their own prejudices. The numbers are neutral; it is the context that discriminates. When some sections of the media come across figures like this, it is a bit like children finding an electric drill. Drills are useful, but not if you do not know how to use them and have no intention of learning.

As William Hague has displayed so clearly, the desire to misinform, misinterpret and mischief-make where race is concerned is wilful and endemic. So we must start from first principles. Races do not get into relationships, people get into relationships. This truism confounds liberals, reactionaries and race-thinkers alike.

Those who oppose mixed-race relationships as an article of racist faith are thankfully in steep decline. According to a recent Guardian/ICM poll, over the past five years the proportion of whites who say they would not mind if a close relative married a black or Asian person has doubled while those who would mind "a little or a lot" has halved.

From the growing number of Caribbeans in mixed-race relationships, one may also presume that the proportion of black people who fear that social assimilation will lead to cultural extinc tion has also dropped. These fears were always unfounded. Culture is not genetic or static but, among other things, historical, political, economic and dynamic. Nor is the mixed-race experience alien to the Caribbean experience. Bob Marley, who did more to promote Caribbean culture than anyone else alive or dead, was mixed-race.

But by far the most common misconception, particularly among liberals, is that a rise in mixed-race relationships signals, a priori, an increase in racial tolerance. People who would otherwise argue that politics should be taken out of the bedroom cannot help trying to slip sociology under the sheets. One wonders, if this is the case, why the group most likely to be involved in mixed-race relationships - young black men - is also the group most likely to be stopped, searched, jailed and excluded. If "every mixed-race marriage is building a better Britain", as one commentator claimed, then logic suggests the break-up of any mixed-race marriage makes Britain worse.

The large number of inter-racial relationships does point to a welcome degree of social interaction between black and white people that would not be possible in a more segregated society, such as America. But no more than that. Inter-racial relationships may be a useful barometer of social intercourse between different ethnic groups. But that does not make sexual intercourse a barometer of racial harmony. If there is a meaningful political conclusion to be drawn from incidences of mixed-race relationships, I have yet to see one. They are what they are - people trying to find sex, love or comfort (and hopefully sometimes all three) the best way they know.

So while the high number of mixed relationships is undoubtedly interesting, the most important factor to emerge from the report is the consequences of the high propensity of relationships involving or between Caribbeans to collapse. The issue here is not the institution of marriage or even the primacy of stable relationships. This is about a financial, social and emotional commitment to children and support for those who look after them.

Many estranged Caribbean male partners are dutiful fathers; but all too many are not. The burden of these break-ups falls on women of Caribbean descent, on a large number (but far lower proportion) of white women, and on the children. Caribbean lone parents are considerably more likely to work than their white counterparts, but more than half depend on income support.

This exposes an unacceptable number of children to child poverty, while depriving them of accessible and vital male role models. It also leaves women, whether they are black or white, working or not, keeping everything together, often in difficult circumstances. We are not talking about victimhood here. According to the report, Caribbean women are more assertive within relationships than women from other ethnic groups, including whites. We are talking about regular maintenance and trips to the zoo, bedtime stories and school runs.

While these issues are often discussed within the Caribbean community there are few opportunities to deal with them intelligently in the broader arena. This is understandable, for the barrier to that discussion is not "political correctness" - whatever that is - but racism. A society in which a black man, Delroy Lindo, can be subjected to 37 stop and searches, charged and cleared 17 times and arrested for allegedly "sucking his teeth in an aggressive manner" does not provide a conducive climate in which to discuss where black men might be going wrong. It is lamentable, for it leaves a deafening silence where a vigorous and important debate should be. Like government ministers dealing with soft drugs, we refuse to address a problem in the hope that it will go away - when the truth is that by not addressing it we only make it worse.

According to the report, "17% of Caribbean men in their 20s have virtually no qualifications, no family and no job - and are not students either". Craig David's pop tune Walking Away risks becoming a depressing anthem for a generation of men whose mothers found solace in Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive. In the words of the late African- American intellectual, W E B Dubois: "Our worst side has been so shamelessly emphasised that we are denying that we ever had a worst side. In all sorts of ways we are being hemmed in."

What we need now is an attitudinal survey - underpinned by a similar degree of sensitivity and intelligence - so we can find out why a disproportionate number of black men are fathering children but not supporting them or helping to raise them. Even as I type, I can hear the drills whirr.

gary.younge@theguardian.com

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