There's one image dominating US news coverage right now: Trayvon Martin in his hoodie. The shooting of the unarmed black teenager in Florida has triggered coast to coast protests and calls to end racial profiling. The full facts about the 17-year-old's death last month are not yet known. What is undisputed is that he was killed in a mainly white gated community by an armed neighbourhood watch leader who thought he looked suspicious. The man who fired the trigger George Zimmerman has now been charged by police.
The case serves as a warning to us all. If fear and suspicion persist, especially towards young black men, then the same could happen in a gated community in London or Birmingham. Youth crime in this country is seen as a black issue and this perception is fuelled by the press and backed up by statistics. Black people are three times more likely to face arrest than white people, according to figures from the Ministry of Justice. In 2007, a Commons Home Affairs Select Committee report found that 75% of gun crime victims were black and 79% of suspects. Metropolitan Police Service data reveals that 59% of males accused of robbery in 2009/10 were black, the same goes for more than two thirds of gun crime suspects.
We need to acknowledge why youth crime is all too often a young black male issue. What often doesn't get discussed is the link between crime and unemployment and the lack of opportunities.
The number of young people without work stands at over one million, while the latest government data puts the number of NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, Education or Training) at 958,000.
This makes for a volatile situation which becomes even more volatile when you also consider the little reported fact that more than half of young black men are out of work. British black men are facing discrimination and a pattern is starting to repeat itself. It's alarming there's so little debate about the fact that a significant number of people from one ethnic group cannot access the employment market. We should not politicise this issue but we do need to face facts.
The role of business needs addressing too. We're relying on business to drive us out of economic hardship, but we're also questioning the role of capital in society. Companies should play a role in society that goes beyond generating tax-revenue (or avoiding taxation as is often the case). There should be a duty on business to be diverse. Bosses should make diversity in the workforce a priority, not from moral imperative but from the realisation that employing staff from all backgrounds gives them a competitive edge and more business opportunities.
Promoting difference is crucial in winning business at home and abroad in an economy where the service sector accounts for 83% of total workforce jobs and where the manufacturing sector has shrunk. A neighbour assured me recently: "Things are getting better." The man, a TV researcher, told me confidently that black women are performing better than their male counterparts and rising up the career ladder.
I'm not saying the situation is hopeless, yet these signs of improvement highlighted by my neighbour shouldn't be an excuse to ignore what we know. That poverty, injustice and a lack of access to services breed discontent. The result is social separation and mistrust that shuts the ears of policymakers. We cannot allow a permanent state of 'us and them' to develop, like that in Florida.
I see the same cocktail of issues that arose in the 1980s. Public spending cuts and reduced access to services are also playing their part in creating an anti-state culture. It's hard to get a loan or a bank account if you're poor. Some will argue it's not just young black men who are suffering, but unemployed young white people too. But these are two distinct issues which should be kept separate, otherwise a hierarchy of oppression develops where different groups compete and are exploited by others for their 'victim' status.
The English Defence League feeds on the frustration of disenfranchised white youths and offers them a framework that excuses violence. Gangs on estates attract young black men who feel misunderstood and have little hope.
We must also challenge our fear of youth, the perception that hoodie-wearing teens are only intent on committing crime. When I chaired the London Youth Crime Prevention Board, the Met and Government Office for London compiled data on how much young people volunteered and the work done with at-risk young people. The aim was to reassure the public that young people weren't a threat. Sadly, these efforts to look beyond knife crime were quietly shelved.
Ours is an ageing population, with the over 65s outnumbering those aged under 16. Young people from every background really are vital to the success of the nation. We should be providing young people with a future, not stigmatising them - or shooting their hopes dead.
This article was orginally published @ www.huffingtonpost.co.uk