When I was growing up in the South, my school, neighborhood, church, Girl Scout troop and summer camp were segregated. This separate social world seemed quite natural, for our economic world was separate as well.
The few black professionals -- doctors, lawyers, teachers and others like my father the minister -- worked within our neighborhood. The other adults worked mainly in subservient positions on the fringes of white society.
I was not aware of the white American ethos -- that one generation of a family built upon the legacy of the preceding generation. Most of us kids were given strong foundations such as a good education, but only a few were able to build on the advances of our parents.
We knew that opportunity was based more on our race than on what our fathers did for a living.
I thought of all this while listening to President Reagan's State of the Union Address the other night.
"The time has come," he told the nation, "to proceed toward a great and new challenge . . . a second American revolution of hope and opportunity."
The first revolution of opportunity for folks like me came in the 1960s when blacks (and white women, too) began to move into the economic mainstream for the first time in the history of the country.
Between 1962 and 1972, blacks from all backgrounds started moving up the economic ladder -- at three times the rate of a decade earlier. Social and legal pressure to end discrimination combined with growth in the economy to produce these gains.
But recently, the push for equality has lessened and economic growth has slowed for blacks, who remain unemployed at a rate three times or more than that of the rest of society.
So today's "revolution of hope and opportunity" is going to be more difficult than it was for us who came of age in the '60s. Far from being on the verge of forging a second American revolution, as Reagan suggested, blacks as a group face an American retrogression.
"Blacks, like women, who recently moved into higher paying positions are more vulnerable than white males," said William Julius Wilson, a University of Chicago sociologist and author of "The Declining Significance of Race."
"It's going to be difficult to sustain the gains of the 1970s. Blacks depend very heavily on a vibrant, growing economy and there are very few signs that we are coming close to a tight labor situation. The prospect is not very bright."
Moreover, opportunity is greater for those blacks who already have a foot in the door than for others, so the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" will increase. One arena that reflects this difference is college.
"Cutting back on college loans will impact on all kids, but blacks in particular," said Christopher Jencks, a Northwestern University sociologist whose books "Inequality" and "Who Gets Ahead" are classics.
"It will not have a big impact on relatively successful black parents' ability to put their kids in college, but it will impact the poor and thereby have an overall bearing on blacks as a group . . . . It's pretty clear that things are going to get worse; the only question is, how much worse?"
But the really bad news is that the middle third of blacks -- the solid core of working persons -- face new problems. They are beginning to experience the same kind of joblessness that usually has been associated with the under class.
This has come about because of structural changes in the American economy such as deindustrialization, which has eliminated many of the high-paying, production jobs in the steel, rubber and automobile industries.
Few good jobs are being created to compensate, so more blacks must compete for society's lowest paying jobs. Those service industry jobs -- fast food clerks and maintenance workers -- are proliferating, but they don't provide enough money to give an adult a decent standard of living.
Reagan may see America standing on the edge of a new revolution, but unless drastic measures are taken, many people will be facing a forced retreat. people will be facing a forced retreat.