`All men want women who will serve them.'

Esther Oxford finds out why six out of ten black women aged 20 to 39 are without a partner Lisa is a 15-year-old schoolgirl with almond eyes and sleek black skin. Right now she is sitting hunched over a cardboard cup in Brixton's McDonald's, her knees tucked into her stomach. Inside her is a three-month-old baby, the result of a fly-by-night affair with a 25-year-old black man. "I hate him," she says of the father. "I've just found out I'm his fourth Baby Mother." But something in the way she says it tells you she doesn't hate him.

Already Lisa is getting used to the idea of living life without a long-term partner. She'll not be on her own. Figures from the 1991 Census show that more than six out of ten (64 per cent) black women between the ages of 20 and 39 are single, compared with nearly four out of ten (36.3 per cent) white women. Ask black women in Brixton, south London, why this is and their answers range from "Good black men died out with the dinosaurs" to "Women are better off by themselves". Ask the black men in Brixton why there are so many single black women and their answer is unanimous: "Women: they too fool."

Cat-fighting between the sexes has always existed. But it has intensified with the publication last year of two novels: Single Black Female by Yvette Richards and Baby Fathers by Patrick Augustus. Both tackle the question of why there are so many single black women in Britain, but reach different conclusions. Ms Richards argues that black men are falling by the wayside, and that black women would rather stay single then attach themselves to a "slacker". Mr Augustus says most women don't choose to be single: they are on their own because they haven't sussed out what black men want.

The debate has reached such a pitch that the black press is now joining in. The lead headline on the letters page of last week's Voice reads: "You poor women just don't know what you're missing." There follows an outpouring of all the "wrongs" committed by the fair sex, then the conclusion: "They [women] have only themselves to blame."

Tony Sewell's weekly column (headline: Single Black Male) continues the theme. If women want a "meaningful" relationship, he says, then stop your "high-falutin' guff" about the shortage of men; stop boasting about careers, connections and cleverness; andstop threatening to run off with a "caring white guy". Black men don't appreciate such "hogwash", he writes.

But to Lisa, such discussions are purely academic. She is not thinking about getting a man any more. Or trying to impress. She's just anxious to find somewhere to live, have the baby, then slowly get used to the idea of singledom. "Nobody will want me now I'm a Baby Mother," she says.

She still sees the father occasionally, but he has three other Baby Mothers to keep him occupied, as well as a string of girlfriends. "He only takes me out now to show off to his friends. He dresses me up, puts me in his car, then goes round saying: `Sheis my Baby Mother. She is only 15'."

Lisa's previous boyfriend had three Baby Mothers, too; the one before that had one. Her own father has six children by two different women and is soon to marry again. "Boys - they're only interested in competing and showing off," she says. "They just like to notch Baby Mothers up on the bedpost."

Why do they think like that? "Competition," she says. "To get respect a black man must be attractive and wealthy." Attractiveness is measured by how many Baby Mothers the man has, according to Lisa, and how many girlfriends he can keep on the go. Wealth is measured by the brand of mobile telephone, the car and the jewellery. "Integrity doesn't come in to it," Lisa says. "It's all about how rich you are."

Yvette Richards, 34, head of a PR consultancy specialising in promoting black clients and the author of Single Black Female, believes that low self-esteem is the main reason for male promiscuity. Sitting in her riverside three-bedroom private apartment in east London, she explains that "disrespecting" women is the easiest way for black men to "sweat out" their disappointment and self-disgust.

"These men have been abused from the moment they learnt to talk - on the street, by their bosses, by stressed-out families. But they should realise that while they may not have a respected position in the workplace, they are important and powerful in thehome - as a role model for their children."

Women aren't entirely blameless, Ms Richards admits. Too many allow their sons and their men to get away with bad behaviour. "When their little boy comes home from school and boasts about the number of girls he has, many mothers congratulate their sons. They don't think about all the little daughters their boy has upset.

"I wouldn't go out with that kind of guy," she adds, sipping a cup of freshly ground coffee. "I think it is best to be single and wait for an ambitious black man to come along. Someone who has a high-flying career and a life plan."

So far Ms Richards hasn't managed to find such a "buppie". Successful black men are few and far between, she says. Figures released from a nationwide Labour Force Survey conducted last summer appear to confirm her view: six out of ten black men between the ages of 16 and 25 are out of work.

"Too many black men are just not up to it," she says. "The world is their oyster if they are prepared to grab opportunities and use them." Instead of trying to improve their lives, they adopt a lackadaisical attitude, says Ms Richards. "They are too afraid of failure. They are too afraid just to try. Unless I found a black man prepared to make a go of it I wouldn't be interested."

Anne Sampoh, 23, agrees. She would rather stay single and support her three-year-old child on her own than look for a husband who has no interest in holding down a job. "Financially, I am much better off taking single mother's benefit and living on my own than I would be if I were to get married," she says. "I plan to stay single."

Patrick Augustus, author of Baby Fathers, says that Ms Richards has got it all wrong. Forget this idea of down-trodden men with no ego, no prospects and no commitment. The reason why there are so many unmarried black women around is simple: single black guys will give up their freedom only for The Perfect Woman. She doesn't exist, so they take several: one to do the cooking, another who can talk well, another who likes the football, another for dancing with.

Two of the lads in the Brixton McDonald's reiterated Mr Augustus's theory. "Don't believe any guy who tells you he wants a strong independent woman. All men want women who will serve them and do exactly what they want. And don't believe any man who tellsyou he loves you. That is just standard stuff. Anything to get you into bed."

Mr Augustus, 31, is something of an authority on the subject of single women. A father since the age of 17, with four children and two Baby Mothers, he has left his trail. Black men "need their oats", he explains, from the comfort of his bubble-wrapped leather sofa. If a woman withdraws her man's "rights" or is lifeless in bed, her man is perfectly justified in finding satisfaction with "a cheeseburger" until his "steak" is ready to play ball again.

Sometimes that "cheeseburger" happens to be white. He knows this upsets his black sisters, but there is a good reason why black men turn to white women: "White women enjoy giving a man oral sex.

"Most black girls are usually too Jesus-obsessed to do it," he explains, legs open, "which is a bit of a problem considering black guys like to get their pleasure." Not only that, he says, taking his cue from blue movies, white women enjoy anal sex, too.

Here, Mr Augustus looked a bit unsure of himself. He quickly summed up his argument. "Look, if a black man wants good sex, he goes to a white woman. It is that simple. If - as 43 per cent of second-generation black men do (1991 Census) - he ends up marrying the white woman, who can complain?"

Besides, he says, a black man is better off with a white woman if he wants to go up in the world - whether it is getting a council house or climbing the social ladder. "Look at Lenny Henry, Chris Eubank and John Barnes."

Ms Richards has some sympathy with Mr Augustus's predicament. She, too, wants a sexy lover, someone she canshow off to her friends. She, too, wants a partner who will help her to climb the social ladder. In an ideal world, there would be a black man in the wings, ready and waiting to oblige. But there isn't. Instead Ms Richards has made a choice that Mr Augustus would heartily approve of.

She has chosen a white boyfriend.