Romantically speaking, what's up with black men and white women?

I'm asking because of the strong reaction to my recent column inspired by black "ER" star Eriq LaSalle. The actor got the show to quash his character's interracial romance after LaSalle expressed concerns that the doctor he plays had only dysfunctional relationships with black women.

But love often crosses color lines, I wrote. Why not on "ER"?

One black woman's response to my opinion couldn't have been more succinct:

"How could you?"

How could anyone aware of the limited pool of single black men, a group decimated by its disproportionate imprisonment and joblessness, cede even a fictitious brother over to a white girl?

Because I believe in love, that's how. Certainly, I believe the black man I interviewed who eloquently explained that what was up between him and his longtime white girlfriend was true love. Yet I understand why certain sisters suspect every black man they see with a white woman, assuming that "what's up" with them is lust, curiosity, defiance of white authority -- anything but love.

Megan Palmer and Lindsay Williams, both 19, and my cousin, Christina Batipps, 20 -- all black juniors at mostly white colleges -- aren't sure what the deal is between white women and black men. But what they perceive worries them.

How could I not understand? I was once a grad student at the University of Michigan, struck by the same thing that strikes them: how many black male students' romantic fantasies didn't seem to include anyone like me.

Otherwise, why wouldn't they look at me?

I don't mean these guys didn't smile or ask me out -- they wouldn't glance my way when we were the only souls on the street. So when a very blond friend nervously asked how she could gently deflect the hordes of insistent black men she attracted at bars, I felt slapped.

Christina, who invited her friends to discuss the issue, says she arrived at Columbia University from a predominantly white prep school thinking, " `I'll meet all these intelligent black men!' Then I noticed this trend. I started hearing, `So-and-so says he doesn't find black women attractive.' . . . Sometimes I felt invisible."

Megan, a Yale premed student, describes a black fellow student who "cheated on his black girlfriend left and right." Now he has a white girlfriend, she says, and follows her "like a puppy dog."

All their black female friends at mostly white colleges have noticed it, the women say: Most of the black men date white women. Most of the white men don't see black women as girlfriend material. Certain white girls pursue black guys.

Which leaves them . . . where?

The women believe their black male peers, and their white girlfriends, are simply experimenting with the forbidden. "I definitely don't expect all these guys to marry white women," says Lindsay, a psychology major at the University of Virginia.

She appreciates how accepting fellow students are of interracial mingling because "I want my options to be open as to who I can be with." She extends the same courtesy to black men -- but can't help noticing how many of them date average-looking white women.

Everyone nods. "My friends are so great -- intelligent and attractive," Megan says slowly. "And we all have this idea that unless we're the prettiest-looking black girl -- a Tyra Banks -- we aren't good enough. . . . I see couples where the black guy had to take the time to find out what was beneath the white girl's surface. . . .

"But nobody is taking the time to get to know me."

Though they'd prefer black mates, all three women say they're open to men of every shade. Other black women are more like my friend, 29, who isn't attracted to white men at all. "Last year, I went out on dates with two," she explains. "At the end of the dates, they pounced on me, saying, `You're so exotic.' . . . Not that brothers treat you like royalty."

So many complexities. A dark-skinned black man whose girlfriend is white says black women ignore him when he's alone. But when he's with his lady, they make a point of giving him the evil eye. So he's supposed to be single forever?

Like him, black women need love. It's hard to imagine this appealing trio not finding appreciative men. Most black men still marry black. And even a nation that has yet to truly celebrate black women's desirability is changing. I see happy-looking sisters with black men, white men, every kind of men.

Consider my white friend whose son, 22, adores his high school sweetheart -- a very brown, very lovely African American artist. When the two briefly separated, my friend was devastated.

"I just couldn't picture her not being part of our family," she explained.

Knowing her, knowing them, knowing love, I could only say, "Of course not."

How could she?