Out of African America

January 10, 1997

Academic Richard Majors tells Katrina Wishart about his pioneering work on race relations which started in the United States and is continuing at Manchester University.

As soon as Richard Majors begins to speak you understand that he is not a man who allows ideas to gather dust in his head. He is a communicator and he speaks with such enthusiasm that it is impossible not to listen. And listen is exactly what people have done, well, certainly in the United States where White House officials have shown great interest in his academic research. "I study problems and come up with solutions," he says. The problems? "Racist stereotypes I being raised as a young black male, being subjected to racism, people closing doors when I pass by."

As a boy Dr Majors walked into a library in search of material on the experiences of black male youths and could only find "four or five books on African American men". With two books of his own (his Cool Pose was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize) and the establishment of the National Council of African American Men under his belt it is fair to say that Dr Majors is going some way, at least, towards finding solutions.

He believes this is all part of his role as an academic. "We provide information that empowers people." But are academics in the best position to "provide information" to black youth? When I suggest that the word academic frequently appears alongside ivory and tower he nods - "Yes, academia doesn't have a very good reputation with the general populace."

Another problem, another solution - the "mentoring programme". Majors hopes to introduce this support system, under which volunteers make themselves available to help and advise parents and children, in schools where issues of race are causing problems. Here is an example of how theories developed in the academic world can be used to tackle everyday problems.

In the US, Majors has appeared on various television shows including Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey but does not consider this a "a big deal". He gives the impression that he does not want to build himself up as something special. He is not interested in achieving "celebrity academic status", maybe one reason for his move from the US to the United Kingdom, where he is on a Leverhulme fellowship at Manchester University. He agrees that in the UK there is even more of a divide between popular culture and academia. No matter, he would rather spend his time improving the lives of black youngsters.

For a man who lives by this logic it is understandably frustrating to encounter academics who confine their work to textbooks instead of allowing their research to "get into the hands of people who could really use it". Although Majors is quick to defend the "many" academics who "just do not have the time", he points out that there are "a lot more professors who could and should do something". How is this suggestion greeted by fellow academics? "They get angry with me," he says, adding, "they don't think it's their job, they think it's what social workers should be doing."

Academia is not the only world in which Majors witnesses a lack of support for black youth. He feels that the approach of the governments in both the US and UK could be improved. Would it not be more beneficial if the Government looked at support systems and mentoring programmes instead of incarceration, expulsion and juvenile detention centres? he asks. Apart from anything else he believes such initiatives would be "cost effective".

Such ideas are taken very seriously in the US where Majors was recently invited to head a think tank at The Urban Institute in Washington. "In the US welfare has a black face, crime has a black face," he says. The Urban Institute aims to examine how the stereotypes surrounding black males can be broken down. The think-tank found that boys "as young as three and four" were experiencing problems in school because of their race. Majors believes that "raising expectations, giving encouragement and providing role models - doctors and lawyers" for young, black males will provide a solution.

But what about black females? Does he think that they face the same issues or does their experience of life and learning differ? Majors chooses his words carefully. "There is a lot of emphasis on women's studies," he begins, "and rightly so, but black boys are more vulnerable to stereotypes". He adds: "there are far fewer people doing research on African American boys even though far more young males than females experience problems at school and are expelled from school."

Does he envisage a time when issues of race and religion will no longer cause conflict? "Yes," he says, but adds that there is a long way to go. "We are still lacking the great debate on racism, it is largely an 'invisible problem', swept under the carpetI still, I'm an optimist ... an idealist - perhaps that's what keeps me going."

Katrina Wishart is an editorial assistant on The THES.

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