One hot, childhood summer, I remember sitting under a tree talking with friends about the jobs we wanted to do when we grew up. Among us there were potential mechanics, models, footballers and hairdressers whose pre-teen dreams were greeted with interest. It was only my plans that provoked howls of derision. I said I wanted to go to university and be a doctor.
They laughed, in part because it was an unglamorous, square ambition for someone with a world of wine, women and song to choose from. But also because it was so completely alien to any of our experiences. None of us knew anyone who had been to university - apart from teachers, who, at that age, were an alien species anyway. I might as well have said I wanted to be governor of the Bank of England, live under water or become a centaur, since we didn't know anyone who had done those things either. And into that vacuum of probability stepped ridicule.
Role models matter. The desire for more of them is one of the few things that unites otherwise polar opposites - both in parliament and outside it. School standards minister, Stephen Timms, wants more male role models in the classroom. So does hard-left MP, Diane Abbott. "Experienced black teachers describe how the most unruly and obnoxious black schoolboy can melt given firm but loving handling. It is important to stress that there are models of success." Lee Jasper, adviser on race issues to London mayor Ken Livingstone, has slated So Solid Crew for glorifying thug culture. David Lammy, a rising New Labour star, tells children in Tottenham, the constituency he now represents and the area where he grew up: "All you have to do is listen, take it in and you are off."
Employed subtly and judiciously, role models present us with route maps by which we can begin to contemplate not only possible destinations in life but also, more importantly, how we might actually get from where we are to where we would like to be. By exposing us to our potential, they can be empowering.
Used irresponsibly, however, they are worse than useless. If they concentrate on the professional rather than the personal, and individual achievement rather than collective advancement, they exceptionalise success and distort any positive message that might assist rounded development. The demand for a greater number of role models may be laudable, but the qualities we might look for from these models deserves more scrutiny. One of the key qualities seems to be melanin content. Collecting his Oscar on Sunday night, Denzel Washington thanked Sidney Poitier (who received one himself for lifetime achievement) for his example: "I'll always be following in your footsteps." And hailing her Oscar win as an opportunity "for every nameless, faceless woman of colour", Halle Berry thanked Oprah Winfrey "for being the best role model any girl can have". In recent debate here, however, a consensus has developed that it is young black men, in particular, who need role models more than most.
On one level, that makes sense. Given the high incidence of mixed-race relationships, divorce and separation in Britain's Caribbean communities, only a quarter of children of Caribbean heritage live with two black parents, according to a report released by the institute for social and economic research at the University of Essex. The vast majority are raised by lone mothers, black or white, and with few male teachers (and only a tiny number of them black), it is true that young black men have few authority figures in their lives who look like them and can relate to their specific condition.
That, of course, puts an immense weight on the shoulders of the few black males who do make it through the system. Not only do most of them have to work twice as hard to get where they are, and not only are they likely to be paid less than their white counterparts, but they have to be more responsible, too. There is no presumption that white professionals should set an example to young, white, working-class youth. If they fail, their failure is never understood in terms of racial disappointment.
As long as racism limits the opportunities available, then what James Baldwin once termed "the burden of representation" will remain a price of black success. But when you hear parents slam So Solid Crew's Asher D, following his conviction for carrying a gun, as a bad example to their children, you have to wonder why they would be ceding such an important task as imparting values to a rap star they have never met.
Black people are not alone in needing role models. My companions under the tree all those years ago were all white. Their stunted sense of their own potential stems from the dead weight of our class-obsessed society - a culture that discourages ambition beyond prescribed limits. Attitudes may be inherited but, unlike race, they are not genetic. In fact, it was probably thanks to my migrant heritage that I had not imbibed their more stifling qualities.
In a nation with the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe, you could argue that much more attention should be paid to mentoring young women, of all races, since it is almost invariably they who end up holding the baby. The truth is, we all need role models. And while identities based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and so on are factors, the real test is whether such models are meaningful, accessible, honest and rounded. Sadly, that is where the concept most often falls down.
A few years ago, while travelling through Virginia, I found myself being driven to a school by a woman I had only just met, so that she could introduce me to her son. "I want you to be his role model," she said. All she knew about me was that I was "a black writer". Apart from that, I might have been a philanderer, cokehead or gaybasher. But the fact that I fitted the profile of an ABC1 black male sufficed. I couldn't fault her motives, but the method and reasoning that underpinned it were deeply flawed. What meaningful interaction could I, then a 28-year-old British journalist, in town for two days, truly have with an eight-year-old boy of recently-divorced parents in southern Virginia?
The emphasis on work suggests to young people that "professional status" is the most important thing they should strive for. When people look for role models, they seek out barristers, politicians, bank managers and - would you believe it? - journalists. Rarely, if ever, do they present postal workers, bus drivers and shopkeepers - people whose achievement is to keep it together on modest incomes. They seek mentors who have themselves fled in search of greener pastures, never those who stay and till the soil.
In the Caribbean community at present, a man who has constant, loving contact with his kids is worth 50 City traders who do not. Similarly, on most working-class housing estates a young single mother going back to college for qualifications could touch parts that few CEOs could reach. Professional achievement is important, but is usually stressed at the expense of other qualities. As a painter and decorator, and devoted father, Neville Lawrence is a brilliant role model. It is a shame that his son Stephen had to be murdered before someone like him was invited into schools to talk to young people.
All too often, role-modelling takes an individual who has done well, parades them in front of a group that is not doing so well, and says: "If you try hard enough, you too can do this." Left there, youngsters have witnessed living proof that it is possible to get on. What they have not been told is that the odds are heavily stacked against them and that, from a class of 30, maybe only one will make it. It suggests that if people do not succeed in those narrowly defined material terms, it is because they did not try hard enough. It kids them that there are infinite possibilities when known limitations exist.
Role models work when they help us imagine bridges to a better future. But without the resources to build those bridges, they tell us more about the priorities of a successful few, than about the experiences and interests of the many they are supposed to help.