Radio - Rachel Cooke

Trying to discover why more black Britons don't climb the social ladder seemed a bit insulting

I know I was supposed to be investigating breakfast shows, but that will have to wait: another matter has conspired to get in the way. Last week, I listened to The Black Middle Classes (Radio 4, 10 and 17 January, 8pm), presented by the award-winning broadcaster and writer Connie St Louis. Its premise was simple: St Louis wanted to find out why more black Britons do not successfully climb the social (by which she meant career) ladder - and why those who do often remain invisible. This seemed a bit insulting at first. I mean, off the top of my head, the last time I looked the head of the Royal College of Nursing was a black woman, Dr Beverly Malone, and the artistic director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts a black man, Ekow Eshun; last year, moreover, Small Island, a novel by Andrea Levy, who just happens to be black, was judged the best winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction over the ten years that the award has been running. Still, I stuck with it. I hoped for figures, for evidence.

In fact, St Louis had very little in the way of numbers to offer, and any that did come her way she preferred to ignore (according to the most recent census, there is a black middle class, and it is moving, as the middle classes tend to do, out to the suburbs as fast as it can). Instead, she interviewed a selection of middle-class black Britons: Peter Herbert, a barrister and part-time judge; Yvonne Brown, a solicitor; and David Lammy, the minister for culture. These people talked, movingly, about how hard they had worked, a common narrative that St Louis seemed to relish. It was when she asked them why exactly it was still such a struggle for some black people that things got tricky.

The truth is, she wasn't much interested in their answers. In particular, she was keen to ignore David Lammy - which was a pity, because here there was a hint of an interesting story. Lammy is so Blairite you sometimes wonder if his brain hasn't been microchipped. Asked about the troubles of young black men, however, he actually raised his voice. First, he suggested that British schools have never been strict enough, and certainly not as strict or as God-fearing as those in the Caribbean (has he mentioned this to Ruth Kelly, I wonder?). Then he pointed out that too many black fathers are absent, and that so-called "babyfather syndrome" is not exactly helpful when it comes to raising young men. I longed for St Louis either to tackle him (for you could almost feel her blanch at his assumptions, which she only tolerated because of the colour of his skin) or to get him to expound a little. But she didn't.

At the end of the programme, St Louis made it quite clear that she found Lammy's generally optimistic views about the progress of minorities in this country pretty much unique, not to say odd. She then said that what she had noticed most about her interviewees, high-flyers all, was their sense of "fragility", their "exhaustion", their "precariousness". This made me furious - and I hope they felt the same way. Listening to Herbert, all I heard was a man somewhat bemused by St Louis's obsession with social class. He did not sound "precarious" to me; he sounded clever and single-minded. Listening to Brown, what I noticed was her mettlesome dedication to her work, her admirable determination that black lawyers get to play on a level playing field, and her refusal to get into a game of blame and counter-blame. She did not sound fragile; she sounded brilliant. What a shame, then, that she was so badly served by the programme-makers. Suitable words for them might include "patronising", "superficial" and "lily-livered".

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, We were wrong about Sharon