The Black Middle Classes

By cjohnson | January 17, 2006 2:13 pm

Well, while we’re on the subject of under-represented groups in science (see here and here), let me raise a (perhaps) even more taboo subject by pointing out a very interesting programme on the BBC’s Radio 4 entitled “The Black Middle Class”. (Beware, the UK defintion and the USA definition of the term have some differences, but you’ll figure out pretty quickly the UK definition by listening.) A Journalist (who by the way, I gather from her comments is black, female, British, and trained as scientist) Connie St. Louis interviews several people (from schoolkids to Members of Parliament) on the issue.

Programme 1/2:

Is there such a thing as a Black Middle Class in Britain today? If so, who are its members? Connie St Louis goes in search of an elusive group of people.

Programme 2/2:

Connie St Louis goes in search of the Black middle class in Britain today. She considers what they can learn from their US counterparts.

Some random thoughts and impressions of my own (I’m in the middle of writing a lecture to be given in an hour, so forgive me if I don’t get everything in, and in the right proportion.):

In programme 1, she notices (as I, and hopefully you, have) the depressing fact that the few places that most people are aware of “successful” black people existing are in sports, media and entertainment. You might wonder, in the context of this blog and our recent discussions of women in Physics: Where are the scientists? Do they exist in reasonable numbers and are just not represented in the media much, or are they largely non-existent as a proportion of the population of people from other ethnic groups? Actually, I wonder that too. I don’t know the answer, but my own failure to encounter these people in significant numbers whereever I go around the planet suggests that the latter is closer to the truth.

But she’s not just talking about Scientists (actually, she doesn’t at all), but “middle class” jobs in general. I don’t care for these terms at all, to be frank, but we can use it as a placeholder for the thing I really care about, which is simply being able to use your talents to be as successful as you can (as measured in standard terms that society at large cares about…. power and influence within society, salary level, etc…. leaving intangibles like “happiness” aside for now.) The UK is arguably significantly behind the US on this issue, and it is interesting to hear (if you don’t know about it or have never thought about it) what the shape of the situation is in the UK, as it does reflect on the issue of representation within the sciences as well.

She tries to identify the particular forces that stop black people from getting very far in the UK, and of course rapidly arrives at a discussion of the problems of the education system, and a discussion of the breakdown of certain family structures that may (or may not?) be responsible. Another key factor is the conflict of values which place a lot of pressure on black kids (particularly male ones) in the playground: being black and being interested in education are just in conflict. It’s just not “cool” to be interested in history, science, literature, art, etc…. (That’s definitely a big problem in the USA too.)

Interestingly, there is a remarkable fact (I did not know about) that came up: The black middle class in the UK, such as it is, is a female-dominated phenomenon. The numbers of women (especially of Caribbean descent) in various management positions in various fields completely outstrips that of black men. It’s also true in other “middle class” jobs as well, such as aspects of the legal profession. This is interesting indeed. I wonder if this will show up in science in the UK too? Is there a pool of black female scientists about to spring forth in the UK? This would be great to see.

I certainly have never ever met another black professor in the UK (in any field, let alone science), but in all the hundreds of students I enountered as a professor at one of the premier mathematics departments in the UK (Durham), not one was black (that I recall…… there were one or two of Indian descent, but that’s not a group we’re talking about here), which I found depressing. I do not know how how this translates to other departments, and to other universities, but it would be interesting to know.

This is a vital issue, to my mind. Recall my earlier (and numerous) remarks about the role of science and public undertanding of science in shaping a true democracy. We cannnot as a society leave key decisions about out futures (the air we breathe, energy we consume, medical treatments we receive, etc) entirely to government, business, and a few other controlling people with “inside knowledge”. If a particular enthic group is not able to sit at the table when these decisions are being made, who’s going to look out for them? Etc, etc. And of course there is the key issue of society limiting its potential by not tapping into a large portion of its talent pool….. so its all joined up.

I have not listened to programme 2 yet, where she examines the case of the USA and what it might have to teach the UK (and I hope, the other way around), but it is bound to be interesting.

Notice that there’s not much said in the above (or in the programme) about racism. This is not just a rant about how black people are “kept down”, by racism, or just by low expectations, etc. But be sure that these are major factors too. I can tell so many stories of my own, and so many of us who have managed to get anywhere got there by having to fight through all that (and once there, still have to fight a lot against such things)…. So it is part of the equation, but not a cleanly separable part of it.

What do you think about the whole issue? Including the aspect concerning black scientists? Don’t feel you can’t comment if you don’t know anything about the UK’s systems: this is a universal problem.



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