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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 January 2006, 10:04 GMT
Black, middle class and invisible
Drinking champagne
Why is it that black people who have succeeded against the odds are so invisible to the wider society? Does a black middle class exist in Britain today and if so where is it?

Successful, wealthy, black and British. There are loads of examples: footballer Ashley Cole, newsreader Sir Trevor McDonald, designer Oswald Boateng and singer Ms Dynamite.

But where there is economic power in the black community it's usually among footballers or entertainers, two of the areas where, according to some, society "permits" black people to succeed.

Hear the first part of Connie St Louis's documentary on the Black Middle Classes on Radio 4 on Tuesday 10 January at 2000 GMT
Only a small number of black people have made their way in business, the professions, politics and academia in Britain today in comparison with the members of other ethnic groups, according to academics.

Black people who have succeeded against the odds are quite often invisible to a wider society. Does the average person in the street know the head of the Royal College of Surgeons is a black man, Bernie Ribeiro, or the Royal College of Nursing is led by a black woman, Dr Beverley Malone?


Culture Minister David Lammy is one visible example of the black middle class. Brought up by his single mother on an estate in one of London's poorest boroughs, Haringey, he is confident he's part of a growing section of black society.

"My experience is that there is an emerging black middle class because I see them, in our universities, in education. We are seeing more black and ethnic minority MPs, more councillors, we are an emerging group of people."

Others are less confident. Peter Herbert is a barrister, part-time judge and member of the Metropolitan Police Authority.

David Lammy
David Lammy say he is middle class

Despite his undoubted professional success, he's uncomfortable with being described as a member of the black middle class. Given the wider problems the black community faces in Britain, he questions if it even matters that such a group exists.

"My initial, knee-jerk reaction is to say, so what?" he says. "Does it really affect the lives of the majority that there is this so-called black middle class or not.

"If you still have the vast majority of our people who are five or six times more likely to be stopped and searched; more likely to be in prison; more likely to be stopped at Heathrow on their return from holiday; and not going to end up in the boardroom, whatever their qualifications, if they have a so-called African accent, it's questionable whether having a so-called black middle class brings any benefit whatsoever."

Academics say there is a black middle class but not much is known about it and social mobility is still limited for most.

"It is an emerging group," says Harry Goulbourne, professor of sociology at London's South Bank University.


"We don't really know the characteristics of it or the size of it because the main story with regards to black people of an African-Caribbean background in Britain is one of downwards social mobility, rather than upwards."

Ceri Peach, professor of social geography at Oxford University, says it is striking that the African-Caribbean middle classes in Britain is smaller in proportion to other ethnic groups.

Some progress has been made - a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that younger generations from many of Britain's minority ethnic groups were succeeding in breaking through the class barrier. But still there are only a few.

I don't buy in to the concept of class because it's condoning some very bad people, I don't understand the question, concept, definition nowadays
Joy Nicols
CEO Nicols Employment Agency
But what relevance do class labels have for young black people at the start of the 21st Century?

Yemisi Blake has just started a degree in Sociology at Goldsmith's London. He questions what being middle class means.

"I personally don't know what middle class is, not many people do," he says. "You don't say by the time I'm 40 I want to be middle class. You say by the time I'm 40 I want to achieve what I've set out to."


But Mr Lammy insists class labels do matter.

"Only black people achieving across a full range, in business, as lawyers, as architects, as politicians, as well as footballers etc, will give us a degree of economic power," he says.

But is being middle class something black people should or even want to aspire to? No, according to Joy Nicols, the CEO of one of Britain's most successful black-led businesses, Nicols Employment Agency.

"I don't understand this concept about upper class, middle class, working class," she says.

Ashley Cole
Are black people only allowed to succeed in sport?
"I don't want to assume my understanding is the same as yours. My family are landowners in Jamaica, how would you describe a landowner in England? Is it like for like? My husband can trace his ancestry back to Henry VIII just by rattling off names, what does that make him?

"I don't buy in to the concept of class because it's condoning some very bad people. I don't understand the question, concept, definition nowadays."

But Mr Lammy argues that building a black middle class is important, because the black community needs role models and must fight stereotyping.

"We need a range of black people who will approach a range of problems in a range of ways," he says.

"I look forward to the day when in the House of Commons there are black men who can talk about Treasury measures, there are black men who can lead on gun violence, there are black men who don't feel they want to talk about race at all."

Hear the first part of Connie St Louis's documentary on the Black Middle Classes on Radio 4 on Tuesday 10 January at 2000 GMT.

I agree that black people need role models on all levels - everyone does - but does that really mean it needs to be labelled with 'Middle-class", it isn't always a compliment to be called "Middle-class". Wouldn't it be better just to recognise outstanding achievements across academia, politics etc without the labels. Separating people via their classes has caused many social problems the world over...rich vs. poor, working vs. middle class etc. So while some want to get rid of stereotyping, adding a class label to a group of people is only encouraging that stereotyping.
Lauren Walker, Perth, Australia

I question the need for a black middle class in this day and age but maybe the term is so ingrained the concept would exist no matter what you called it. Class is a way to exclude and so if a black middle class does emerge all that will happen is that the goalposts will move and exclusion will happen in some other more subtle way. To quote David Lammy MP "I look forward to the day when in the House of Commons there are black men who can talk about Treasury measures, there are black men who can lead on gun violence, there are black men who don't feel they want to talk about race at all." What? Not black women? He must be an MP.
Lloyd, Essex

Why on earth should the average person in the street know anything about the head of surgeons, whatever colour they are? Why is everyone so frantic about encouraging everything, everywhere, to be absolutely equal in ratios of males and females, blacks, whites, purples... Every organisation these days boasts about how wonderfulyl diverse they are... So? Surely, black people, white people and purple people will all succeed in the world if they really want to. The only real barriers today are those created by people reporting on them.
Liz, London

As a black professional (male), I find this discussion very interesting. As a clinician, I do believe it is important that blacks have the same societal identifiers (middle class etc.). Too many blacks as they strive to escape poverty and the stigma associated with being black, choose denial as a constant companion. Hence some of the comments in the "Black, middle class and invisible" article. Yes it does matter if there is a black middle class. Just look at our in academia. We have fewer blacks graduating from high school and even fewer going on to university. What is more discomforting and detrimental to black progress and upward mobility, is the ever decreacing number of black males in the work force, especially in trades and professions. Then they are the ever increasing number of black males in the criminal justice and mental health systems. These I see and work with daily. While there are many success stories of individual blacks, like those mentioned in the article, as a people, we are still languishing in the political, economic and social wilderness. Sir Trevor McDonald became the first black on national TV over thirty years ago and he is still the only one. When is the last time you saw a black person being interviewed on TV as an expert on any subject? We need to stpo being invisible and stand up and step up and stop making excuses. WE ARE BLACK -yes, and we should be proud of it. We need to stop strutting our feathers in the breeze of mediocrity and annonimity. C. W. Cyrus (RMN, BA.) Life Management & Forensic Psychiatric Specialist
Wallace Cyrus, Croydon, UK.

I listened to your programme on ┐The black Middle Classes┐ on Radio 4 with interest. The programme came across as if the only black people living in this country are black people of Caribbean origin. This is reflected in the things like the black history month where there is little or no mention of Africa and so on. I am a black man of African origin and there an emerging middle class is this community too. Most of my black male friends are doing very well (we educated and in good jobs) and will probably qualify as middle class. Like me though most were educated in Africa and came here for further education. I shall be happy to talk to you about if needs be. Good programme.
Kwesi Acquah, Greenwich, London

I feel middle class, but not part of a black middle class. The program doesn't mention that there are black people whose families have been in the UK for generations. My father came to England from the West Indies in the 1920s as the son of a black doctor. He was brought up by another black doctor in Lancashire. My father became a doctor, and I am a doctor also. Relatives of mine who also came to the UK in the early 20th century have similar stories. In some ways I feel sad that I am one of a fairly small group, but I feel that my main identity is as an 'English' person, and my race and 'class' don't take up much of my thoughts.
Christine Hoyte, Bristol

I intended to listen to this programme with interest. However, after 10 minutes I had to turn the radio off. What a stupid programme. Is a race divide necessary in any class? Does the presenter realise that to her audience she is infact enforcing racial stereotypes herself - and indeed making herself seem superior to her own race? Stop making race an issue. Or an excuse.
Tanya , Middlesex

Maybe the reason middle class 'black' people are so invisible is because people don't acctually care they are black, and rather see them as individuals. Personally someones skin color is no different to me than the color of their hair, its like having an article on why ginger haired middle class people are invisble.
Owen, Newcastle

I have been frequently stopped in my convertible car (nine times in twenty-months). If working hard putting one┐s self through university for five years and qualifying as a barrister is being black and middle class and that I am invisible, I cannot wait to return to my working class roots.

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