One of a series of occasional articles.

Juliette McNeil grew up in Roosevelt City, Ala., just outside Birmingham. She recalls wearing Goodwill clothes, knowing children who were killed in a church bombing, and occasionally hiding behind bushes, fearful that the occupants of a passing car meant her harm.

Because of massive white resistance, her high school was not integrated until after she graduated in 1970. She went to work, for $35 a week, cleaning tables at the Twentieth Century Restaurant in Birmingham. "That's when I realized," she said, " 'I am worth more than this.' " She enrolled at historically black Alabama State University and received her accounting degree in 1975.

Today McNeil, 34, makes more than $45,000 a year as a supervisory operating accountant for the Naval Data Automation Command. She is married to James L. McNeil, from rural Chatom, Ala., president and owner of a recently launched "Beltway Bandit" consulting company, McTech, short for McNeil Technologies Inc. It has just lined up a $1.5 million, three-year Navy contract.

The McNeils live in a 3,000-square-foot, four-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath, two-story colonial in Lake Devereux, a predominantly white subdivision in Fairfax County. James McNeil drives a Volvo. Their 4-year-old daughter's name is Ashley.

All this does not make the McNeils superachievers, however. Instead, they are part of a new black middle class without precedent in size and accomplishment in the almost 400 years that blacks have been in America, according to a new Washington Post study of federal, state and local statistics; information from private marketing firms, and scores of interviews.

Unlike previous black elites, this black middle class is emerging and succeeding by the standards of the majority white culture in mainstream American careers. One result is that class is becoming a more important predictor of behavior than race, according to the Post study. This is true not only of black behavior. It also is true of white reactions to this new black middle class.

Further, the study shows, this new black middle class is burgeoning in the suburbs, where the bulk of new, white-collar, middle-class jobs are being created. Fears of white, job-rich suburbs rendering an entire race jobless and trapped in the inner city have not been affirmed, despite the plight of the black underclass. The majority of Washington area blacks no longer live in what people of both races have lightly referred to at times as "Chocolate City." The majority now live in the supposedly "vanilla" suburbs.

These suburbs, little more than residential neighborhoods as recently as 10 years ago, are emerging as huge Los Angeles-like cities in their own right. Tysons, for example, is bigger in terms of white-collar jobs than Miami, and Gaithersburg/Rockville is bigger than Baltimore.

The Post's demographic analysis also shows that in terms of jobs, housing and educational opportunity, Prince George's County -- one of the most racially diverse suburban middle-class counties in the United States -- is so much above the national average as to be plausibly described as the American Dream.

Not only that, but Northern Virginia, long shunned by blacks as racist, is developing a black middle class with some of the highest rates of achievement in America.

By the second decade of the next century, the new American black middle class could be as large in percentage terms for blacks as the white middle class will be for whites, predicts Bart Landry, a professor at the University of Maryland who is the author of the just-published "The New Black Middle Class."'A Story to Be Told'

This black middle class is expanding in such diverse places as Los Angeles, Long Island, Atlanta, Chicago and Detroit, The Post's survey shows. But its emergence is most obvious in the Washington area.

The Post's study shows, among other things, that:The majority of the Washington area's 650,000 blacks live in its suburbs, not the District of Columbia.

Of the area's 300,000 prosperous blacks, almost twice as many live in mostly white neighborhoods as in mostly black ones.

In the four largest counties -- Fairfax, Montgomery, Prince George's and Prince William -- the typical black family makes between $1,100 and $5,200 more a year than does the typical white family elsewhere in America.

The typical Washington area young black adult -- age 25 to 29 -- has more education than the typical young white adult elsewhere in America. In Montgomery County, for example, the black median is higher by an entire college semester.

Since 1980, the fastest-growing population of young blacks in absolute numbers in the region's public schools has been in Fairfax and Montgomery counties.

Most blacks who move to the Virginia suburbs come from outside the region, not from historically black neighborhoods in the District and Maryland.

These facts have gone largely unnoticed because of the way statistics are usually reported. In the Washington area, for example, all accomplishments usually are measured against the pinnacles of economic, educational and social achievement of the whites who live in Fairfax and Montgomery. From those peaks, everything else looks like a valley. The result is the inaccurate perception that because blacks still lag behind comparable whites in most indices, most are uneducated or poor.

This report measures the new black middle class against a different standard -- the levels of income, education and housing achieved by whites nationwide. By these standards -- recognizable in such places as Milwaukee; Norman, Okla.; Heflin, Ala., and Pawtucket, R.I. -- the change is striking.

"There is a story there to be told. And it is a story of the success of the revolution of the last 20 years," says Milton D. Morris, director of research at the Joint Center for Political Studies, America's preeminent black think tank. "It's almost as if we would rather not focus on that side of the picture, because, after all, the glass is half-empty. Many people still perceive the results as very, very tenuous. It's like, 'Yes, there are these things, but we really don't believe it's for real; we can't take it too seriously because it could disappear any minute.' But those successes, they're there. They're real. They ought to inspire us."Inequality Still Exists

None of this is to suggest a millenium. Libraries have been written about how much remains of the journey to true equality for blacks in America.

Many members of the new black middle class interviewed for this report displayed a sense of embattlement. Some saw a resurgent American racism behind everything from the nomination of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court to the ongoing investigations of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. Some, in effect, questioned whether their new position in the middle class was secure, or whether it could be rolled back.

And indeed, the largest black-owned corporation in the Black Enterprise 100 is still smaller than the smallest corporation in the Fortune 500. The plight of the rural poor and the urban underclass is daunting.

Some of the highest birth rates in the District of Columbia are recorded in neighborhoods southeast of the Anacostia, where a third of the population is unemployed half the year, Census figures show.

Black college enrollment -- especially for males -- has dipped from levels achieved in the late 1970s. During the recession of 1982, the size of the black middle class shrank.

Because the majority of blacks in America are still struggling, blacks, on average, still lag behind whites in every measure of income, education and social well-being.

But increasingly, averages are not fully representative of black experience in America. Generally, the black suburban middle class differs significantly in attitudes and economic behavior from the working class, which differs in turn from the poor.

This increased entry of blacks into the middle class has national economic implications. "If black household and income profiles converged to those of all Americans, there would be a near $100 billion increase in personal incomes, about a 3 percent increase in gross national product (roughly equivalent in scale to the total GNP of Switzerland, Belgium or Sweden), and a consumer market target that stirs the imagination," reports George Sternlieb, director of the Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers University, and his colleague James W. Hughes.

There are also national political implications. "As the black middle class shares the same frustrations, problems and desires as the white middle class, party barriers will break down," says Roger J. Stone, a Republican political consultant who is a senior adviser to the Jack Kemp presidential campaign. "The party or candidate that offers solutions to jobs, education, traffic, growth and health care as well as civil rights will be able to attract that vote. Some Republicans already have. Tom Kean in New Jersey, in the {1985} governor's race, won 62 percent of the black vote. That was both suburban and urban."

Since the 1960s, black educational attainment has seen one of the steepest growth curves of any population group in American history. Only 38 percent of young adult blacks had a high school education in 1960. The figure had soared to 55 percent by 1970 and 75 percent by 1980. By 1986, it had reached 81 percent. Historically, education correlates with economic performance.

"Successful blacks are the most forgotten group of Americans there are, and the most interesting," says Rutgers' Sternlieb. "The focus has been so much on the losers that the very people who have been able to come through have been ignored."

Better-educated, newly middle-class blacks in the Washington area continue to maintain a strikingly high attachment to District institutions -- from churches, to undertakers, to restaurants and nightspots. But it is not without irony that this new middle class has tied its residential and occupational futures to the emerging suburban cities, not the old urban core.

"The original growth of the suburbs came as a way to get away from population heterogeneity in the cities," says Thomas A. Clark, head of the graduate school at the University of Colorado at Denver and author of "Blacks in Suburbs." "Now, as jobs become increasingly suburbanized, the difference in population mix between cities and suburbs is declining."

These suburban economic successes are serving to mitigate the effects of racism on at least two fronts, scholars say. The first is that, as has been demonstrated by other once-reviled ethnic groups such as the Chinese, the Japanese and the Jews, economic clout can enhance opportunity in education, housing and employment.

Further, the more overwhelming the presence of a black middle class, the less sustainable are white stereotypes that often have more to do with class than color.

Such stereotypes "just do not apply," says author Landry. Whites, he said, have discovered that "these people are okay, these middle-class blacks. Before they were afraid. Afraid of crime. Afraid of images of blacks who are hostile. Not good neighbors. Stereotypes that fit very poor whites as well -- what whites call 'poor white trash.' "

This is not the first time a new black middle class has been proclaimed in American history. In fact, it is the third since the end of slavery. But an examination of the past shows how different and significant this new black middle class is. It is the first to measure status the same way as most whites do -- by the amount of money it can command from the larger society.A Third Black Middle Class

The first differentiation of status among blacks came after the Civil War, according to historians. For blacks of that era, the measure of being relatively upper class was proximity to whites. Baldly put, people who once were "house" slaves had higher status among their liberated brethren than did those who had been "field" slaves. In Washington, for example, a black barber could be regarded in the black community as having high status if he had white congressmen as clients.

The ultimate demonstration of proximity to whites was to be in possession of a relatively light skin tone. This is the origin of the historic equation among blacks that the darker one's skin, the lower one's status, according to the late social historian E. Franklin Frazier, author of "Black Bourgeoisie," the 1957 study universally regarded as a bench mark, and others. In this first black upper class, having status was not generally the same as having money.

The second black middle class came around the turn of the century. Its core consisted of black professionals serving a black clientele -- preachers, teachers and undertakers, for example. In the Washington area, this middle class was known as "The Dunbar Crowd" after Dunbar High School, at First and N streets NW, where Washington's black elite was educated, according to numerous black Washingtonians with long-term ties to the community.

A bastion of this class was Howard University, the first black university with a full complement of professional schools ranging from medicine to law. The members of this group first clustered in the nearby Le Droit Park neighborhood, but the neighborhood they ultimately made famous was the "Gold Coast" of upper 16th Street NW. This class was the political power base of Walter E. Washington, the first mayor of the District of Columbia.

Members of the second black middle class still did not necessarily equate status with money. Status was measured more by refinement of manner and education, and the position of this black middle class was based on its dominance of a market held captive by segregation. Thus, as integration offered new choices, this class declined. For that matter, Frazier demonstrated that despite its pretensions, this "middle class" was simply insignificant nationally in terms of economic clout.

Thus, it is only this third black middle class -- whose emergence coincided with the civil rights movement and the legal end of American segregation that came with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- whose status is measured by other blacks the same way it is measured by most whites: by the amount of money it can command from society.

The members of this middle class are not simply a few skyrocketing superachievers. They are a large, church-going, home-owning, child-rearing, back-yard-barbecuing, traffic-jam-cursing group remarkable only for the very ordinariness with which they go about their classically American suburban affairs.

NEXT: Affluence, education's impact