ROCKY is a young man who looks as though he's going places. But if he does, it's more likely that it will happen closer to Birmingham, USA, than here in the heart of the English Midlands. At 24, Rocky is trying to make his mark on the pop scene in the United States. His rock group, Equators, recently cut its first album, called ``Hot.''
Now he's back home with his family in Handsworth, a Birmingham inner-city area that is one of the poorest in Britain. And to Rocky, the prospects for those who live here don't look good. His father and uncle, previously employed in the once-flourishing engineering industry, are both out of work.
``My dad is 54, and he has been made redundant. There's no way of his getting a job at that age. He's building a rabbit hutch to keep busy. My uncle is just turning 50. There's no chance of his getting a job, either,'' Rocky says. ``As a young person, it's triple hard to get a job here,'' he adds.
Handsworth's high unemployment (37 percent overall, but twice that for blacks), poor housing, overcrowded conditions, and high concentration of immigrants mark most of the area as one of Britain's ``extremely deprived'' districts.
Twice in the last five years, major riots have shaken the shabby Lozells Road section of the inner city. Depending on whom you speak to -- the police, members of the city council, or the now-defunct county council -- the last riot, in September 1985, was caused by drugs, unemployment, or racism.
Community residents say it was the frustration of joblessness -- and police harassment.
One black mother says, ``There's nothing for [black youths] to do. There's nowhere for them to go. Then the police say they're lazy because they have no jobs.''
A 16-year-old black schoolgirl adds: ``I think it was unemployment, but they take it out on the police.''
``How would you like to be watched all the time,'' says a resentful youth. Tension between blacks and police
To Geoffrey Dear, the imposing 6-foot-6 chief constable of the West Midlands Police, ``it's very hard to be 17, unemployed, black, and living in Handsworth.''
But, he adds, ``it's also very hard to be 19, white, and working as a policeman in Birmingham.''
He worries about a fundamental problem in Britain's inner-city areas: the tension between police and young blacks. Overreaction as a result of mutual fear has frequently brought the two into collision.
Mr. Dear is concerned that in areas like Handsworth the police are the only visible representatives of local and central government.
As a result, he says, ``all the frustrations, real and imagined, are visited upon us.'' And there are frustrations. According to Dear, 90 percent of blacks under 21 in Handsworth have never had a job.
In August 1985, a month before the riot, the Handsworth Job Center of the government's Manpower Services Commission reported 7,000 applicants and 289 vacancies, or 24 people chasing every available job.
Now unemployment is more than 25 percent higher, as the shakeout from Birmingham's declining manufacturing industry continues.
But it's not just the inability to find jobs that worries Rocky about the situation facing blacks in Britain. It's also the mental climate -- or, as he puts it, ``the lack of positive uplift'' -- in a country where black cultural identity, he feels, is submerged or subordinated to that of whites.
Blacks' sense of cultural disorientation is accentuated by a common feeling that much of white Britain still regards them not as legitimate black citizens, but as immigrants, as outsiders from abroad. This seems to be true even of those who were born in the inner city and have grown up with British working-class accents.
``The problem I see coming back to this country,'' Rocky says, ``is that blacks have been treated as though they're not here. In the States, blacks have their own businesses, their own radio stations.''
Rocky is now more aware of what is usually noticed by visiting black Americans, including businessmen, academics, and congressmen: the absence in Britain of a substantial black middle class. (One result is an absence of blacks in senior civic positions, appointed or elected. There is, for example, no black member of Parliament.)
Dennis, a 31-year-old sitting near the closed Villa Cross Pub where last year's riot erupted, says that it was the prospect of finding work, plus some photographs of ``Torquay and palms,'' that lured his family to England from Jamaica. (But Torquay, a mild southern-coast British resort, bears no relation to the colder, industrial Midlands where they now reside).
``There's no future here,'' says the unemployed Dennis. ``We're at the bottom. We're not Africans. We're not black Americans. And we're not Caribbean anymore.''
Adding to the sense of frustration felt by the Afro-Caribbeans, as most blacks here prefer to be called, is the lack of available housing in Handsworth.
Clyde Waldo of Finch Road, just off Lozells Road, says: ``I'm looking for a flat. I'm 24 years old, and they tell me I should live in a hostel -- but I'm old enough to be married and have a family.'' Mr. Waldo's is not an isolated instance. Some 92 percent of young Afro-Caribbeans are on the waiting list for housing. And despite increasing government and news-media attention since the riot, the housing situation is growing more acute.
The Handsworth Single Homeless Action Group -- a private agency that tries to find accommodations for homeless people -- is reporting 40 new clients every month, according to the Center for Research on Ethnic Relations at Warwick University. This is up from less than 30 a month two years ago.
Nearly all the applicants are blacks, and two-thirds of them are unemployed. While some of the group's clients are ``sleeping rough'' -- out in the open or in doorways and passageways -- most move in with relatives or friends in already overcrowded conditions. The city's dramatic decline
The increasingly grim picture in Handsworth, however, is not as longstanding as that of Merseyside or the northeast of England, which have experienced ``endemic poverty.''
``It's an area that has come only recently to this stage,'' says Nicholas Deakin, professor of social policy at the University of Birmingham.
One of the most prosperous parts of Britain until 1979, Birmingham -- the country's second-largest city, with a population of over 1 million -- has suffered a dramatic decline.
Between 1979 and 1984, unemployment trebled. Birmingham has been hit extraordinarily hard because of its heavy dependency on manufacturing jobs, which continue to be affected by stiff foreign competition.
Since 1971, the city has lost 200,000 jobs, nearly twice that of Scotland and Wales together.
Short of a massive infusion of government funds -- regarded as unlikely -- no dramatic turnaround can be expected, most experts say. Yet there are positive developments that could bring some benefits to blacks if they are carried out.
Since the last Handsworth riot, the Birmingham City Council has adopted several important policies. These include the determination that:
One-fifth of all city jobs will be allotted to blacks and Asians from the inner-city areas. (Blacks and Asians account for about 11 percent of Birmingham's population, 4 percent of Britain as a whole, and about 60 percent of Handsworth's population.)
A certain percentage of local public procurement funds will be spent in the inner-city areas.
Thirty percent of the work force on any public-works program will be drawn from the inner city. (As of September, this has been written into all city contracts.)
A register will be maintained of individuals with building skills in Handsworth and similar areas so they can be considered for participation in construction projects.
Graham Shaylor, director of development in Birmingham, says that when these initiatives were proposed at community meetings, ``people were sort of nodding their heads, smiling, and saying, `Yes, let's see you do it.'''
Plans to put these policies into action have yet to be completed. Setting up task forces
It's too soon for judgment, too, on the results of the government's inner-city task force for Handsworth.
Last February, after riots in several inner cities, the central government created a task force to tackle unemployment and poor living conditions by encouraging closer liaison between central and local government authorities and community agencies.
Resources were also made available to create self-help programs for Afro-Caribbean entrepreneurs.
George Gordon, information director of the advice center of the Handsworth Employment Services Limited (HES), a private community agency that receives funds from several government departments, was skeptical a few months ago. Now he's more optimistic. The value of the task force so far, he says, has been in opening doors so more people can acquire skills. This has clearly benefited HES, which runs local training programs.
But Mr. Gordon warns that it's going to be difficult to convince a skeptical community that anything is going to change.
While the economic outlook looks bleak, a few blacks have had some success on their own.
In 1979, three Rastafarians (members of a West Indian cult that stresses black cultural identity) - Lynford Dennis, Earl Smith, and Baron Morgan - started their own tailoring business in a Birmingham flat.
They moved to Handsworth in 1980, and now, with help from private and public sources (including the city council), they are established in a refurbished loft atop the HES building.
Their business, a cooperative called H.I.M. Fashionwear, is thriving. More than a dozen Rastafarians are bent over sewing machines making clothing and hats, their distinctive dreadlocks concealed under a variety of headgear of their own creation.
The styles on display in their attractive store range from ``berries'' to sheepskins, from ``youth baseballs'' to the well-known broad flat hats known as ``rockets.'' The tailors turn out 200 to 275 hats a week and are now seeking export markets.
For Mr. Gordon, the inner-city task force's efforts to open doors to more skills training is welcome. But more important, as in the case of the Rastafarian tailors, there need to be jobs at the end of the training.
Otherwise, he says, trainees will be joining the long line of others in the community who have salable skills but no jobs to go to.