Kerry Moore, John Jewell

Black role models and the news

This chapter critically explores the news and journalistic discourses surrounding the concept of the role model in the UK. It draws upon news content and semi-structured interviews with journalists from a wider study commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government exploring the media image of Black young men and boys in 2009-10. Analysis demonstrates negatively stigmatising discourses at play in role model news and polarised attitudes towards role models among journalists' reflections. Post-Marxist discourse theory is employed to argue that rather than challenging the complex social inequalities facing young Black men as recent government policy suggests, role modelling as a 'technology of the self' is likely to articulate neoliberal logic and reinforce existing social inequalities

Keywords: role models; young Black men; news discourse; post-Marxism; neo-liberalism

Background: The Reach Media Analysis Project

In 2009-2010 we conducted a media research study analysing the coverage of Black young men and boys in British news and current affairs media[1] commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG). The central aim of the research was to identify how the news media in Britain represents young males, and to explore the dominant discourses through which Black young men and boys specifically are constructed. The research involved two key components: a content study, including an in depth quantitative and qualitative analysis of how young Black men are represented in the contemporary mainstream and Black and minority ethnic media; and a production study examining why the coverage of young Black men and boys is constructed in the way that it is through semi-structured interviews exploring journalists’ and news editors’ reflections upon the news values and institutional conditions of production of news in this area (Moore et al 2011).

This investigation formed part of a wider programme of CLG funded research designed to inform a set of policy aims to raise the levels of achievement and the aspirations of Black young men and boys in England. This was inspired by the Reach report (Reach 2007), which identified negative media stereotypes and a lack of positive role models as key factors contributing to under-achievement amongst Black young men and boys in education and the labour market. Reach suggests that a negative public and self-image, fuelled by the media, is likely to impact upon the aspirations and achievement levels of Black young men and boys. Our research was designed to respond to the Reach report’s assumptions about negative news media representations of young Black men and boys, and to provide an evidence base about dominant media discourses that could inform future policy making in this area.

In this chapter, we draw upon some research findings included in our report to CLG, our wider data set and theoretical reflections to critically engage with the idea of role models as constructed in the dominant policy and news media discourses. We analyse key assumptions within these discourses with particular reference to role models for Black young men and boys and the deployment of role model oriented solutions to the problems they face. As media researchers we fully supported the need to monitor and explore regimes of representation surrounding young Black men and boys that might reinforce social marginalisation. However, we did not necessarily share policy makers’ assumptions about how media power and influence might operate. Moreover, we were less convinced about the presuppositions informing role modelling as a central strategy for addressing such marginalisation, and about how more progressive or emancipatory outcomes for young Black men or boys might be imagined.

At the launch of the Reach programme, Hazel Blears said:

There could not be a better time to embark on this work. The success of Lewis Hamilton here and Barack Obama in the US are current and powerful examples for young men. We must not just use this momentum – we must also build on it. I hope today is another important step on the journey to ensure equality for all (Department for Communities and Local Government, 2008).

Hamilton and Obama are represented as ‘a powerful signal to young people that they can achieve’, although ‘for many they will still be the men on the telly, removed from their day to day to lives, whose achievements exist in a world beyond theirs’ (Blears cited in Waugh 2008). Reach attaches importance to the propinquity between role models and young people in their everyday worlds. Its interventions seek to harness and make ‘more real’ the positive forces assumed at work in young people’s symbolic relations with high achieving celebrity figures such as Obama and Lewis[2]. Whilst academic debates continue about the contemporary influences of celebrity heroes or cultural icons (Lockwood and Kunda 1997) and the dynamics and significance of para-social interactions (Singhal 1999), the most concerning element of the policy discourse in our opinion was the centrality of role modelling as a strategy ‘towards equality for all’. Our scepticism about a relation between encouraging role models for Black young men and pursuing ‘equality’ prompted us to explore further how the notion of ‘the role model’ is actually constructed and articulated within UK news narratives, how ‘role modelling’ is currently understood by journalists and how the dominant meaning surrounding this term functions within contemporary public discourse.

What is a role model?

Exactly what a role model is understood to be is by no means self-evident or settled. Research across a range of disciplinary perspectives has sought to empirically test and/or critically question the efficacy of certain role models or role modelling strategies. Social and educational psychologists and sociologists for example have investigated the influence of role models and their behaviour on youth violence (Hurd et al. 2011), adolescent health risk behaviours (Yancey et al. 2002) counter-stereotyping (Dasgupta and Asgari 2004) academic performance, teaching (Marx et al. 2009; Taylor et al. 2011; Carrington 2002; Carrington and Skelton 2003; Carrington et al., 2008; McIntyre et al., 2011; Lockwood and Kunda 1997) and motivation (Lockwood et al. 2002; Lockwood et al. 2005) and entrepreneurial inclinations (Mungai and Velamuri 2011).

In legal studies, the wider social and political significance of role modelling has been discussed in relation to questions of diversity and affirmative action (Allen 2000; Allen, 1991; Ifill, 2000), whilst in the sociology of sport, exploring the construction of certain contemporary and historical celebrity figures as role models includes British boxer Amir Khan (Burdsey 2007), American activist Paul Robeson (Harrison and Lampman 2001), as well as basketball players (May 2009) and high profile US athletes (Harris 1994). However, there appears to be little consensus about the extent or the nature of influence that ‘role models’ are understood to exert upon individual experiences or social structures.

Similarly, in media studies role models feature in relation to a variety of research discussions, including violence in music videos (Rich et al. 1998), and racial typification in crime news (Chiricos and Eschholz 2002). Thinking in this field has long problematised any simplistic assumption about the ‘effects’ of mediated role models, as Tuchman’s classic (1979) essay highlighting the complexities of addressing questions of gender inequality illustrates. Her argument that mediated social identities, including positive or negative role models, cannot be understood to effect, ‘a vulgar and odd mimesis’ of personae, behaviour or attitude remains an especially pertinent insight (1979: 531).

Gauntlett notes that a ‘role model seems to be popularly understood as “someone to look up to”, and someone to base your character, values and aspirations upon … they are supposedly influential figures’ (Gauntlett 2002: 211). They should not be taken to be someone that a person necessarily wants to copy: ‘Instead role models serve as navigation points as individuals steer their own personal routes through life’ (ibid: 250). He asserts role models can be divided into six categories:

  • the ‘straightforward success’ – people who have been successful in their chosen field;
  • the ‘triumph over circumstance’– those who overcome adversity;
  • the ‘challenging stereotypes’ – those that challenge traditional assumptions;
  • the ‘wholesome’ – those held up by the older generation as iconic;
  • the ‘outsider’ – heroes to those that reject conventional social expectations;
  • the ‘family role model’ – those looked up to members of their own family.

As contemporary examples demonstrate, such as the controversy in 2011 over Ryan Giggs’s super injunction and revelations about his private life, these categories can overlap in complex ways. They are discursively linked with certain burdens of responsibility, and represent challenging images to uphold. Before the series of scandals broke, Giggs was represented as somebody who transcended the modern image of footballer as greedy, sexually profligate and immoral. According to the Daily Telegraph, Giggs represented:

Modesty personified, standing as the perfect role model for youngsters striving to make their way in the game. In an age when some callow players become millionaires in their teens, losing their competitive edge and slipping off the rails, Giggs is a paragon of virtues on and off the pitch […] As a human being, a touch of nobility defines him (Winter 2009).

Reportedly according to Sir Alex Ferguson, Giggs was similarly considered ‘a model of how to carry yourself, both as a footballer and a human being’ (Anderson 2011). As such, Giggs’s fall from grace as a national role model was spectacular and also suggests that the socio-political function of the role model is far more complex and potentially controversial than the policy rhetoric surrounding role modelling might suggest. More directly, the political salience of questioning role modelling policies is highlighted in critical discussions of affirmative action. Delgado provides a series of compelling arguments why a Black faculty member should not desire to be a role model. Not least among these is the contradictory logic embodied in such a position—that the lives of future generations can be improved by reproducing the current order of things: ‘Our white friends always want us to model behaviour that will encourage our students and protégés to adopt majoritarian social mores’ (Delgado 1991: 4).

Role modelling as a part of affirmative action, Delgado argues, is teleological rather than deontological: it does not address serious injustices of the past that have generated structural inequalities, it ‘neatly diverts our attention from all those disagreeable details and calls for a fresh start’ (1991: 2). The wider socio-political function of role modelling in the UK context is also highlighted by Burdsey, who notes that it is ‘particularly noteworthy’ that British Muslim boxer Amir Khan is prominently held up as a role model, for this term ‘carries connotations (both positive and pejorative) not only about Khan himself, but also about the communities that he is perceived to represent’ (Burdsey 2007: 613). Burdsey argues that as a role model, Khan’s: ‘specific, publicly-performed embodiment of a British Muslim identity is perceived to endorse hegemonic discourses around multiculturalism, citizenship, community cohesion and the “war on terror”’ (2007: 612). Informed by such concerns, and engaging with post-Marxist discourse theory, our approach also critically explores how ‘the Black role model’ might play a part in reproducing hegemonic discourses sustaining the social, and how this may or may not represent a step on a ‘journey to equality’.

Theoretical approach and method

We investigate the news media and journalistic discourses surrounding Black role models through discourse analysis. According to post-Marxist discourse theory, the social is a realm of discursive conflict and struggle in which the order of things is constructed, reproduced or challenged as a hegemonic formation (Laclau and Mouffe 1985). Discourse restricts what can be acceptably said and thought about a particular topic – it defines the objects of our knowledge, but it also conditions ‘how ideas are put into practice and used to regulate the conduct of others’ (Hall 1997: 44). Indeed, nothing exists meaningfully outside of discourse (Laclau 1990). So, it is not only language and ideas, but also social identities, relations and institutional practices that are constructed, reconstructed and regulated through discourse.

As such, how the figure of the ‘role model’ is rendered meaningful as an object for policy discussion and public debate not only conditions the range of ideas, expectations and practices which seem appropriate to associate with ‘role models’ but also how the rest of the population might think of themselves and their society. Discourse is understood as, ‘an articulatory practice which constitutes and organises social relations’ (Laclau and Mouffe 1985: 96); it does not merely reflect, but actively constructs ‘truths’ about role models – what we understand as the social reality of young people’s relationship with them, and the importance of role modelling for the future.

In our analysis of the discourses surrounding role models, several concepts are useful. These relate to the contingency of discursive structures – a formal characteristic, central to anti-essentialism, that signals that all identity, including those of social agents, social relations and ideas, cannot be seen as timelessly fixed. Instead, every discourse is always over-determined and constituted through a process of articulation (Laclau and Mouffe 1985: 113). While meaning is produced through the differences between signs, those relations of difference shift and change depending upon the context of their use (Laclau 1996).

As such, we can understand the meaning of ‘the role model’ to be constructed in relation to its social, political or cultural context and, as with all identities, its ‘regularities merely consist of the relative and precarious forms of fixation which accompany the establishment of a certain order’ (Laclau and Mouffe 1985: 98). The universal is not a transcendental ground guaranteeing identity, but rather understood as a discursively constructed ‘horizon’ in relation to which meaning is partially and temporarily secured through myths that ‘stand in’ for the absent fullness of the social. According to discourse theory, when such myths are particularly successful in a particular historical and cultural moment, (such as those sustaining the so called ‘war on terror’ as elaborated in Burdus’s analysis of Khan as a role model discussed above, for example), a social imaginary, which ‘provides the ultimate horizon of meaning and action’ (Torfing 1999: 203) is constituted. In relation to this, myths (in this case about national security, and multicultural British identity) seem more powerful, and meaningfully suture the legitimacy of the social order. How discourses surrounding Black role models might contribute to contemporary social myths and their wider political significance will form part of our discussion.

Our analysis draws upon broadcast and print news media monitored during eight fortnightly periods over eighteen months 2008-9[3]. All major national daily and Sunday newspapers as well as a selection of regional newspapers were included[4]. In addition nightly television news programmes, BBC Newsround, BBC Six O’clock News, ITV News at 6.30pm, Channel Four News at 7pm and Sky News at 6pm were monitored, as were the radio news programmes: BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, BBC Radio 4’s News at Six, and Radio 1’s Newsbeat.

We also draw upon a series of semi-structured interviews conducted in 2008-2009 with 10 journalists and editors identified as experienced in covering stories about Black young men and boys and working within or across a range of news media organisations in Britain[5]. Participants were recruited through a combination of purposive and snowball sampling. Here we extract from the reflections of journalists and editors upon their practice of reporting about Black young men and boys to focus on references to role models and role modelling. We have sought to explore how role models are defined in journalistic discourse, and the professional and personal attitudes journalists expressed towards this concept through their responses to the questions: ‘How would you define the term role model’ and ‘who are the positive role models for young Black men?’

News discourse analysis

In the Reach media analysis, role modelling is identified in only 2.4 per cent of news stories featuring young black men or boys, but also as the sixth most important distinct topic of news (Moore et al. 2011). In most instances, role modelling appears in stories about famous individuals – the coverage largely about Formula One racing driver Lewis Hamilton and about the election of President Barack Obama.

When Lewis Hamilton’s ‘role model’ status is explicitly highlighted, an emphasis is placed upon his symbolic value as an inspirational figure for ‘other young men’ and for ‘people of all cultures’:

Mr. Hamilton’s youth makes his win remarkable at 23, he is the youngest ever world champion and his dignity, restraint and extraordinary capacity for hard work make him an inspirational role model for other young men (London Evening Standard, 3 November 2008).

At 23, Hamilton is the youngest man to win the formula one title, and also the sport’s first Black champion. He says he hopes to inspire people of all cultures to try out motor racing and that he’s comfortable with the pressure of being a role model (Radio 4 Six O’clock News, 4 November 2008).

At least two of Gauntlett’s (2002: 250) role model categories are seemingly represented here: an exemplary ‘straightforward success’, but also perhaps, ‘wholesome’ (Hamilton’s ‘dignity’, his ‘extraordinary capacity for hard work’ held up as ‘iconic by an older generation’). The danger here for these role model statuses, of course, is any potential ‘fall from grace’ or controversy which might undermine his image of successful wholesomeness. For example, in a response to a controversy surrounding Hamilton and his McClaren team’s tactics during a race in Australia a letter to the Editor in the Daily Express asks: ‘What sort of message does it send to people – especially youngsters – that as a role model the racing driver Lewis Hamilton can lie twice, say sorry and get away without a punishment?’ (1 May 2009). Similarly, when asked about his repeated reprimands from racing stewards during the 2010–2011 season, Hamilton’s widely reported playful retort speculating racism: ‘Maybe it’s because I am Black – that’s what Ali G says’ (McKenzie 2011) arguably also ‘breaks the rules’ of role model ‘wholesomeness’ in some important ways. The positioning of an individual as a ‘role model’ within a news narrative can function to heighten the news value of their supposed wrong doings – a dereliction of role model responsibility being very likely met with moral censure.

Elsewhere, in a letter to the Editor in the Sun, Hamilton’s role model status seems to correlate more strongly with another of Gauntlett’s categories – the role model who challenges stereotypes: ‘He’s the best role model a youngster here could have. If only more people had his drive and commitment there would be a lot fewer street crimes and teenagers hanging around’ (Sun, 9 July 2008). Hamilton’s role model status here becomes a point of comparison through which to complain about young people – a mechanism for introducing negative and menacing images of youth who, it is imagined, could be more like Hamilton if only they had his ‘drive and commitment’.

The coverage of the Reach campaign itself provides a similar example of how potentially negative stereotypes can be reinforced in this way. In a sympathetic article in the London Evening Standard, ‘ROLE MODELS SCHEME TO BOOST YOUNG BLACK MEN’ (15 July 2008) role modelling is largely defined through Hazel Blears’ encouragement of Black men to become involved as ‘great examples for Black boys to follow’ and an ‘alternative to the culture of crime, drugs and gangs into which some are lured’. The articulation of role models as a response to ‘crime, drugs and gangs’ reproduces the problematic image of young Black men and boys that the policy ostensibly seeks to address. We can also identify the reproduction of stereotypes about young people in the Barack Obama role model coverage.

In ‘BORIS: WE NEED MORE BLACK MEN IN TEACHING’ (London Evening Standard, 5 February 2008), for example, Boris Johnson, the then soon to be Mayor of London, asserts the need for Black male teachers in order to provide ‘Barack Obama-style inspiration’ because: ‘Too many children in schools in London are lacking drive and ambition, which in turn leads to poor academic results, high truancy rates and ultimately, exclusion’. Such examples illustrate how, in promoting the idea of a need for role models for Black boys in particular, role models are represented as standing in for the lack of something necessary for their full and positive identities. Whilst in the Obama example above this is a lack of ‘drive and ambition’, elsewhere it is a lack of ‘hope’ that role model figures such as Hamilton and Obama mythically fill in for. In ‘IF OBAMA GETS IN, I’M MOVING TO AMERICA: YOUNG BLACK BRITISH MEN ON THE ROLE MODELS THAT GIVE THEM HOPE’ (Guardian, 4 November 2008), a less overtly negative image of young people is constructed and the election of Obama and the success of Lewis Hamilton are greeted with enthusiasm, heralded as historic and inspirational. However, the discursive presupposition orientating the report is that there is a lack of hope amongst young Black men, which can be addressed by more role models.

The significance of Obama’s election for UK society is also the focus of a Sky News piece on 6 November 2008. Introduced under the banner graphic, ‘Black Role Models’, the news anchor frames the report as part of an exploration of the ‘powerful impact’ of Obama internationally, explaining that: ‘EVEN BRITISH TEENAGERS ARE BEING ENCOURAGED TO FIND A ROLE MODEL IN THE PRESIDENT ELECT’. The report draws on the views of children at two London schools and the potentially transformative impact of Obama upon young Black people’s attitudes is emphasised. Three Black boys from Lambeth are asked what Obama’s election ‘means to them’. A range of responses are offered, from the observational: ‘I think it would be nice, like, to see that happen over here – you know – if you see a Black person or a Black prime minister over in this country, because we don’t really have a lot of Black representatives’, to the more ‘invested’ in Obama’s success: ‘It motivates young people, young Black people to actually go ahead and try and be something’ and, ‘It shows that no matter want you want to do, if you put your mind to it and you work hard you can become whatever you want to be.’

What such examples share with some of the Lewis Hamilton role model coverage is the centrality afforded to the idea of motivation—a rational and/or emotional response (a ‘reason to act’, a drive or ‘desire’) which is represented as necessary not just to mobilise, but ‘to become’—to assume a valid position as a social subject. The available possibilities ‘to become’ envisaged here vary dramatically from the first, fairly modest example, ‘try to be something’, to the second, perhaps more ambitious one, ‘work hard and you can become whatever you want to be’. Yet both imply that to not ‘try’ or to ‘work hard’ is to exclude oneself from the social and to fail in one’s responsibility to oneself (and to one’s society) to secure an acceptable subject position within it.

Journalistic discourse analysis

Journalists’ interpretations of role modelling varied quite significantly, although most were expansive in their responses. Without exception, the white journalists we spoke to offered definitions of the concept and did not question the need for role modelling. Some were optimistic about the range of figures in Britain who might be considered ‘Black role models’ and their potential future impact:

P1: I think we are seeing some really important ambassadors for the Black and Afro-Caribbean community in this country coming through now in all areas, whether it be in politics or whether it be in industry, in lobby groups and so on. I’m seeing those faces come through - intelligent, opinionated, interesting, challenging, bright people who will be role models for a new generation. These things don’t happen overnight, it takes time.

P2: I’d define it as someone who sets a good example to other people, may be admired or respected in a certain field or as a person in general. Somebody who may have achieved something positive for a social group or a section of the community or themselves … I wouldn’t identify a role model explicitly – but I include subjects who clearly fill that role: e.g., young Black men who have spoken to me as soldiers, lawyers, teachers, a student leader, and charity workers. I think it’s important not to focus only on football and music stars.

Some participants articulated their responses in terms of the extent to which role models could offer something ‘needed’ by young people or ‘the Black community’:

P3: They’ve grown up and they’ve seen their best friends murdered or whatever by gangs and a lot of them are involved in youth work, a lot of them are doing really good community projects and I think they’re fantastic, but they don’t necessarily have the same impact as celebrities.

P1: I think what the Black community needs are individuals who will make the next generation of young Black boys or girls growing up in this country set their ambitions in a different way, so their horizons are slightly further, that they think that actually people like them can achieve more. If you have a situation … where people who look like you and come from backgrounds like you, seem to inevitably end up either being dead or in prison, then that clearly is going to colour what you think is likely to happen in your life.

Opinions were also offered about the role the media play in promoting role models, including how journalists might use this concept in articulating more balanced, less stereotypical coverage of Black young men:

P1: If you have people who are around, who are in Hello Magazine and in Heat Magazine and on the national news and in your local paper and wherever, who are successful beyond your usual sphere, which might be sport, and celebrity and pop, then those people I think are really important because they do change.

P4: Within more complex ‘negative’ stories (e.g., crime/drugs issues), I try to include young Black men who act as ‘positive role models’—recent examples include a charity worker who helps the children of drug addicts, and teenagers from a Christian outreach group trying to tackle street gang culture.

As our analysis of news content above demonstrates, invoking role models as ‘positive’ social identities can not only invite negative comparisons with others, or articulate social problems generally with Black young men, but also a wider discourse of responsibility. Whilst P4’s response is to interpret that responsibility as a journalistic one in challenging negative portrayals of young Black men, other responses seem to reinforce a discourse wherein social problems facing Black young men are largely articulated as the responsibility of Black people themselves:

P1: Seeing themselves as victims of a racist society, I think there has been a recognition that actually a lot of the problems of the Black community are, to an extent, of their own making. They need to do more. Black boys not performing at school is partly due to the fact that Black fathers are very often absent; that maybe Black communities do not value education enough; that actually there is a responsibility on Black people in Britain to change the weather. It’s not just about politicians apologising and trying to pass legislation.

By contrast there were also very critical responses, especially amongst the Black and Asian journalists, resisting the very idea of the role model as a solution to social problems:

P5: I have anxieties about role models … What does it mean? And actually very few people can explain what role models mean … I’ve never had a role model … And sometimes not having a role model is the biggest incentive of all because you want to be in that place where no one is … I think sometimes role models make them feel inferior, make them feel I can never be like Trevor McDonald, so I’m always destined to remain down here … I think again though, it would be terrible if people thought oh, if Obama could do it, anybody can. That’s the problem with role models, you see. ‘What are you whinging about, look at “…” there’s no racism in America any more, look what happened?’

P6: I say straight away I’m totally uncomfortable with the concept. And I think it is a little bit insulting that young Black men ‘need’ role models. What young Black men like myself … feel frustrated about is that the implication is that somehow we’re not able to sort out our lives … Well, Tony Blair went and said that Black men need to take more responsibility about their kids. From that point on, we’ve had an uphill battle to convince anybody that our community is not a failing community, that actually it’s the way that a lot of your policies, as well as your media and so on, are skewed.

P7: I just think that’s the biggest load of baloney going … I think that the role model that a child needs are its mother and its father, and all these kinds of ideas about, oh, if we show a couple of Black men going around saying ‘I’ve done well, you can be like me’, it’s so superficial. It’s so bogus … I find the whole term really patronising. It’s as if Black people can’t do anything unless they see someone there or you’ve got to be held by the hand and led through, as if you don’t have any independent mind to see what’s right or not. I find it really patronising in a racist way.

These critical voices clearly interpret the supposed symbolic social function of ‘role models’ as wholly inadequate in accounting for the complexities conditioning their own personal journeys to successful journalistic careers. However, they also articulate a wider set of political concerns that ‘raciological’ injustices and inequalities embedded in institutional structures and policies might, at least inadvertently, be marginalised as a result of privileging role modelling and its focus on addressing social problems by focusing on the individual and individualistic endeavour.

Discussion and conclusion

From our analysis of the news and journalistic discourses surrounding role modelling, we contend that role modelling should be regarded as a technology of neoliberal governance that mediates the relationship between the state and its problematic publics. Rather than ascribing responsibility to the state to tackle tricky structural issues conditioning social disadvantage, inequalities and institutionally constricted opportunities, new responsibilities are placed upon the individual and attached to their performance in maximising their efficiency and striving towards their personal goals. As ‘role models’, Hamilton and Obama serve as useful myths for neo-liberal modernity—articulating young Black men as individual subjects compelled to assume responsibility for their own social subjections. Indeed, role modelling is a particularly useful technology for what Paul du Gay would term, entrepreneurial individualism, or an enterprise of the self (Du Gay, 2008 [1996]: 157).

Role model myths reinvest the ontological priority afforded to entrepreneurial individualism in our society with symbolic power. They serve to remind us that as ‘hard working’ or ‘respectable’ citizens in modern society, the responsibility to behave in this way continues as a daily endeavour, even if, perhaps, our investments in future personal goals have no likely probability of fulfilment. The idea of an individual human life as ‘an enterprise of the self’ suggests that no matter what hand circumstance may have dealt a person, he or she should remain always continuously engaged in that one enterprise, and that it is ‘part of the continuous business of living to make adequate provision for the preservation, reproduction and reconstruction of one’s own human capital’ (Gordon, 1991: 44). In this, an individual’s experience of deprivation and alienation from the social are very likely to be conceived a matter of poor self-management: you have the freedom to simply re-narrate your identity, so just choose (or be inspired) to try harder!

Under New Labour concerns about the educational achievement, employment aspirations and involvement in crime of young Black men in British society were met with programmes promoting role models as a solution – government initiated/funded as well as charitable or private initiatives. As our own report’s findings indicate, this period also saw a great deal of news media coverage linking problems of violent crime with young Black men and boys, particularly involving gangs, guns & knifes. However, to focus on role modelling as a solution to these complex social problems (and to assume that role models would have a straightforwardly positive impact upon the image of young Black men in the media) is highly problematic. Role modelling as a ‘solution’, we contend, directs attention away from the more difficult political and social questions surrounding the complex determinants of social inequalities and disadvantage. Instead it neatly condenses and repackages those problems as if they could be addressed at the level of individual endeavour and investment in inter-personal influences—a narrow social-psychological focus which very easily implies that the primary attribution of responsibility might rightly be placed with the young people themselves, ‘Black families’ or the ‘Black community’.

Indeed, the kind of ‘empowerment’ that role modelling implies is actually an attribution of responsibility—and one very fitting for a neo-liberal social imaginary that promotes the enterprise of the self over state responsibilities to take care of and promote social well-being for its citizens – a logic which is, arguably, responsible for growing inequalities, and not likely to bring, as Hazel Blears hoped, ‘equality for all’. Whilst the dominant discourse surrounding role models very easily reproduces a problematic public image about young Black men, it also serves a depoliticising function—drawing attention away from the complex institutional and structural factors conditioning social inequalities – not least in this case, those shaped by the British state and society’s recent, and long-standing, histories of racism and associated antagonisms that should be confronted as socio-political issues facing us all.


[1] The full research team at Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies was Kerry Moore, John Jewell and Stephen Cushion with researchers Lucy Bennett, Darren Kelsey, Max Pettigrew and Liezel Longboan and with assistance from Allaina Kilby, Julia Wallace, Alice Kennedy and Lauren Gaskell

[2] One of the Reach report’s central recommendations called for a structured national role model programme for Black boys and young Black men. Twenty men including businessmen, journalists, servicemen, a fire fighter, lawyers and media experts were selected as role models. They were to design a programme of activities intended to play to each of their strengths and skills and to go into schools and colleges, youth projects and young offender institutions to talk about their personal journeys

[3] The monitoring periods were as follows: 2008: 12-25 May, 7-20 July, 1-14 September, 27 October- 9 November; and 2009: 26 January-8 February, 27 April-10 May, 27 July-9 August and 26 October-8 November. A comprehensive explanation of our sampling strategy is outlined in the original report (Moore et al. 2011)

[4] Selection according to the highest circulating newspapers in areas of the country selected by CLG, and included: London Evening Standard, Bristol Evening Post, Birmingham Evening Mail, Nottingham Evening Post and Manchester Evening News, and the free newspaper, Metro

[5] On the grounds of ethical integrity, participants’ names are not used. Responses are differentiated by the use of labels: P1 for participant 1 etc. 7 in total are quoted. (P1) is a white journalist in UK national television; (P2) is a white journalist in a regional newspaper in the West of England; (P3) is a white journalist in a national tabloid newspaper; (P4) is a white journalist in UK regional television in the East Midlands; (P5) is an Asian journalist in national broadsheet newspapers; (P6) is a Black journalist in radio; (P7) is a Black journalist in a national broadsheet newspaper. To ensure participants cannot be identified by these descriptions, gender is not individually given – overall two are female, five male


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