Just inside the entrance to the Hechinger's at 17th Street and Benning Road NE, there is a dream. It is orange and white with black trim, and it has 18 horsepower, a four-speed transmission, a 44-inch swath, two headlights and a $2,200 price tag. It is a riding lawn tractor.

It and five other models occupy prime display space. Hudie Fleming Jr., the 47-year-old longtime manager of the store, knows why. For many of his black customers, Fleming says matter-of-factly, the tractors are powerful status symbols of triumph in a historic struggle, fought in blood, the ultimate goal of which is a suburban middle class life style. "That tractor says, 'I have so much lawn to mow, I need to sit down,' " he said. "I know some people who have two."

Hudie Fleming has considerable claim to understanding the behavior of the new black middle class. The grandson of a Mississippi sharecropper, he has a marketing degree from Howard University, a five-bedroom home in the Hillcrest neighborhood on the edge of Southeast Washington, a household income approaching six digits, a daughter in college and a son bucking to be an Airborne Ranger officer in the Army.

All this does not make Fleming a superstar in the Washington area, however, because the Washington area has one of the highest percentages of successful blacks in the United States, according to a Washington Post study of government and private marketing data and population projections that foreshadow the 1990 census.

Further, the more affluent black families are, the more they tend to act, buy and think like other affluent families, regardless of race, the study indicates.

This demographic study also shows that:

The more money made by the members of this new black middle class, the more likely they are to exhibit class-influenced consumer behavior ranging from a fondness for station wagons to a decreasing tendency to buy lottery tickets.

The more money the new black middle class makes, the more likely its members are to tell pollsters that they agree that government welfare programs discourage people from improving themselves.

The more money this new middle class makes, the more likely its members are to have sought after and acquired that suburban holy grail: a home they own. (Of the more than 100,000 middle-class blacks living in middle-class black neighborhoods in the Washington area, 52 percent own their home. Of the almost 200,000 affluent blacks in the area living in predominantly white neighborhoods, 62 percent own their home. Those groups represent approximately half the black population in the area. (Complete survey results, Page A9.)

The modes of behavior of this new black middle class are significant because of its growing influence on the nation's politics, economics, living patterns and social relations. Most telling is the way this class is making its mark in what had been previously considered the white enclaves of the suburbs, where the bulk of American jobs and wealth is being created today.

Class influences on this new middle class have "altered the traditional character of black leadership. Nothing has emerged that addresses and reflects the changes of the last two decades," said Milton D. Morris, director of research of the Joint Center for Political Studies, the nation's leading black think tank.

"Black leadership over the years has focused primarily on the poor," Morris said. "Inevitably, that kind of focus will have to become modified. You're seeing the beginnings of that. Black concerns still talk about unemployment and low wages. But there is an increasing prominence to questions of education, entrepreneurship and economic opportunities that is definitely middle class."

Middle class blacks are no less black just because of their affluence, asserts Harvard psychologist Alvin F. Poussaint. Bart Landry, author of "The New Black Middle Class," the first major look at black affluence in 30 years, agrees, saying, "The big concern is loss of blackness. It's attachment to your own identity.

"The cusp is when your kids grow up and they start moving into the larger society," said Landry. "The question is, who are they going to be? Are they going to keep solidarity with you and your generation? You struggle to improve and make it better for your kids. But then it comes time for them to move out and marry. You're concerned that they are going to go over to other people.

"All ethnic groups have gone through it. Are they going to marry a nice Italian or Jewish or black? Or are they going to bring in an alien -- a gentile? Because it's hard for these new people to fit. It causes a discordant note.

"It's less of a problem in other groups," Landry said of this most sensitive issue. "Irish or Italian-how different is that? But in the U.S., it's still black and white, and you know it. And when you think your kids are losing that notion, you get alarmed. Even if they're doing okay and they're being accepted, black parents always feel sooner or later you're going to be running into discrimination. And you want them to be able to handle it. Be prepared."

"It's a problem," said Hudie Fleming. "The first time you realize that your kid is playing rock 'n' roll on the tape deck, instead of soul, you turn to your wife and say, 'Where did we go wrong?' "

"When you start dating somebody of another color, that's when issues change very quickly," said DeMaurice Smith, 23, of Glenarden, a University of Virginia second-year law student who has attended predominantly white schools. "That was the first I was ever, ever called a nigger -- was at high school. When it came to that."

He added quickly that the problem was hardly one-sided. If anything, he said, "If you did get any massive heat, whatsoever, you would catch it from blacks. They see you as a turncoat and I guess they want to make that a little vocal."

Nonetheless, "We find a convergence of priorities of whites and blacks in a number of issues," said Morris. "They all seem to be linked to changing economic status. We took a look at partisanship. There is a softening {among blacks} to the routine attachment to the Democratic Party."

Despite the black vote having gone overwhelmingly to the Democratic Party since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, some Republicans have not ignored the question of how they might attract further support from this new black middle class.

"Jack Kemp and Bob Dole have talked about the Republicans being a party of voting rights, human rights and equal rights," said Roger J. Stone, a Republican campaign consultant who is a senior adviser to the Jack Kemp presidential campaign. "Nixon got almost a third of the black vote in 1960. The Republican Party integrated the South at Little Rock. There's no reason why a Republican candidate with an inclusive message for everyone cannot win black votes."

"In deciding who I was going to vote for, I had to ask myself how do I think blacks in America can best be helped," said Prince George's County physician Frederick Corder, who voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. "Is it by building a better business foundation for them, or by building better projects for them? I see business as the road. I now have eight employes. If I do better, I'll be hiring eight more. I tend to hire black individuals. I take care of predominantly black patients. I think I'm helping on both ends," he said.

"Before we can get black voters to weigh our positions on economics and crime, we have to stand for civil rights," Republican operative Stone added. "It's a threshold issue -- not the one that wins you votes, but the one that makes you acceptable so you can try to persuade. It's like with senior citizens. If you talk about cutting Social Security, they don't want to hear about any other issue."

The ideological differences between middle class black liberals and conservatives are nothing more than different approaches to the same goal -- to get less-advantaged blacks "out of their predicament," said Harvard Medical School's Poussaint. He is a consultant to "The Cosby Show" who, according to an associate, "reality-checks" every script.

The suburban black middle class frequently has two styles, he says, one for white or mixed consumption, another for blacks alone. Among themselves, members of the black middle class are likely to "talk more in a black way, different intonations, inside humor," he said. For that matter, with their patronage, they support innumerable black institutions, from dance troupes to theater to opera to newspapers, he suggests.

Ironically, some black members of the arts community respond to this last point by saying they are less concerned about this group acting sufficiently black as they are about it acting sufficiently middle-class.

"They're still not emptying their pockets, as far as the arts is concerned," said Raymond Jackson, a professor of music at Howard University who has run concert series and festivals there. "They attend some of the concerts. But when it comes to big support -- individuals who will be able to contribute $1,000 or $5,000 -- that's not part of the culture of the black middle class yet."

Poussaint says that institutions such as Jack and Jill -- a national black service and social organization that brings together young middle-class black people -- are growing as more blacks move to the suburbs. "In the back of your brain," said Poussaint, "you've got to be thinking that if they know more black kids, they'll marry one.

"There's a lot of pressure on the black middle class to stay black. There's a lot of ill feelings in the black community to interracial marriage. It's very strong. Not encouraged. The black middle class -- they feel like they've failed in giving the kid a strong sense of self if the son married a white woman," he said.

"It's kind of a contradiction. Your kids are living in an integrated community, and you want them to feel part of the community, participating equally in it. Then you feel very ambivalent about it psychologically, when they do."

NEXT: Prince George's: a social laboratory