Diran Adebayo
On the new black middle-class
('The Observer') Sunday June 2, 2002
‘We’re all middle class now,’ retorted Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott famously when Today ‘s John Humphrys suggested he’d moved from his working-class roots. Prescott’s father rushed to disagree with his son and, no doubt, many from Britain’s black communities, for whom some connection to street and working-class life remains key to establishing their race credentials, would second Prescott senior. Nevertheless, all the statistics point to Britain being an increasingly affluent society, with higher numbers going into higher education, and, at 12 per cent, a higher proportion of those are blacks and Asians, more than ever before. Wednesday’s elevation of Paul Boateng to the Cabinet and of Tottenham MP David Lammy to ministerial office have been talked up by some media commentators as the clearest indication yet of the arrival of a new black middle class. I’m not so certain.

What makes a middle class? Three factors strike me as key: money, attitude and lifestyle. Black Britons certainly have more money than they did a generation or two ago. Many of us, the children of immigrants who often did menial jobs or else struggled to find employment commensurate with their qualifications, now wear suits to work. But this money rarely amounts to serious wealth, because this new middle class is overwhelmingly employed in the public sector. Educated black people tend to work for the local councils, in housing, social work etc; if we’re lawyers, we tend to be at the lowly paid, legally aided criminal side of things rather than the lucrative corporate tax arena.

If we’re in the media we’re mainly climbing the rungs of the public service BBC. Otherwise, there many people who earn their money chiefly through constant applications to Whitehall or the European Union to fund various black community projects up and down the land. If it wasn’t for the state, the black middle class would be in big trouble.
Serious money, the kind of money that is handed down through generations, comes from working in corporations or from business interests but most blacks remain almost excluded from this kind of employment. A list of the wealthiest black people in Britain would be no match for the British Asian or British Jewish Top 100.

The reason why the Asian middle class is so much bigger is because it stopped working for others a long time ago, believes Henry Bonsu, pundit and presenter of BBC London Live’s DriveTime . ‘Otherwise you’re always going to be crawling, rather than sprinting ahead.’

There are positive signs in the increasing number of young black men training in areas like IT in particular, the type of work that allows you to start up a company and then hire out your services to big corporations, but we remain a community of slightly insecure employees. Perhaps this insecurity is fed by the lack of a long British black middle-class pedigree. Any number of white middle-class peers of mine were only able to buy their first house, and so entrench their middle-class status, by courtesy of their grandparents’ estate or a top-up from their parents. Few of the new black middle classes can call on such aid. The real middle classes are those who have got a serious financial cushion beneath them.

This is not to say that many of us weren’t middle-class in our own native lands. The majority of Africans who came over here during the Fifties and Sixties, years of high immigration, came from middle-class backgrounds, often arriving as students, whereas the majority of Caribbeans, in particular the Jamaicans, came from rural, artisan backgrounds, a difference reflected in the fact that black British of African descent, despite making up only 20 per cent of the black British population, outnumber black Caribbeans in higher education by two to one.

But despite those differences in background, I would say that most of our parents shared a certain middle-class class or ‘immigrant mentality’; ie, whether it be through education or not, your children must work very hard and patiently to succeed in this country. That mentality has foundered in recent years against an emerging black British culture, and a wider national culture, which is ever more ‘working-class’ in its outlook. Middle-class people are very good at deferring gratification, at looking at the bigger picture, at saving their money now to win a bigger prize later; working-class minded folk are less so.

In working-class communities, where few people can point to their jobs as evidence of high status, you tend to gain status by spending money on visible things – on fashionable clothes, on jewellery, on a nice car. In poor countries, in Africa or the Caribbean, to even have the money to buy a car and gold, you need to have a good job, which probably means getting educated. Not so over here, especially given the prevailing images of Western black culture. Being ‘street’ – street-tough, street-cool, physical rather than cerebral – is what we Western blacks are famous for, and defined by.

It’s a vision entrenched as much by our current popular culture-makers, chiefly our musicians, as much as it has been reinforced by the types of neighbourhoods we’ve tended to grow in and the other working-class people we’ve integrated with there, who look to us to be that. A bravado culture has grown up among blacks living in largely black areas, a ‘bling-bling’ culture of instant money and instant gratification; all these things are inimical to the building of a sturdy middle class.

Let me give you two examples. A friend of mine, a black parent who lives in Lambeth, in south London, constantly bemoans the bad state schooling provision in his borough and worries about what’s going to happen to his children. He’s by no means rich but has always had a nice car. Last time I saw him, he had a brand new Mercedes. He’d come into some money, he told me. But rather than spending the money on private tuition for his kids, he’d spent it on flashy wheels.

There is the son of a family friend, a 20-year-old whose Ghanaian parents have asked me to ‘mentor’ him. He’d got into a bit of trouble as a youth at school in Haringey, north London, so they sent him back to Ghana, to Achimota, Ghana’s Eton, and Paul Boateng’s alma mater. To see him, his jeans slung extremely low, with his jewellery and all the other black urban trappings, you wouldn’t think he’d been to an Eton. To hear the slang he uses and the rather harsh way he talks to his girlfriend, you’re struck again by how much most black people in these areas, even from ‘middle-class’ homes, feel they have to buy into certain street attitudes. After Achimota, he returned to his north London school, where he told me that various bad-boy stances were even more deeply embedded than before. ‘My parents kept on telling me to go to school, go to school, but school is where the trouble is,’ he says.

He’d begun an IT course, but has now given that up. The reason? There’s no money being a student and he wants more cash now. It’s little use me telling him to plan for the future. He has to answer to his peers every day, not to me.

This is certainly more a boy’s problem. Black Western popular culture is based on manly attributes, so girls suffer less from the negative sides of it, a fact reflected in the figures which now show that black women earn more than black men. Black women are far more likely to exercise what we might call traditional middle-class lifestyle options – to read fiction, go on outings to the countryside or go on a skiing holiday. They’re beginning to hit the mainstream middle-class arts venues, such as the South Bank in London, albeit mainly for black occasions such as the Celebration of My Sisters annual jamboree. But you’ll find precious few still attending its regular events, like a jazz night.

The new black middle class is coming and is growing. It may well be helped by the imminent arrival of faith schools, too, for the black church movement, instrumental in the rise of the United States’s black middle class is strong here, too. But few of this new class will be living in black areas like my mentoree. They’ll be living where their white peers do – in the suburbs – and their children will be educated in mainly white schools.

Those who will be most successful will be those who can talk the talk of the club – the mainly white middle-class club – best. But unless certain values change, the mass of black Britons won’t be joining them for a long time to come.