Ask a hundred black Americans what constitutes the biggest threat to their continued progress, and 90 of them are likely to answer: racism.
They will have no trouble coming up with evidence to support their view.
The controversy over Stanford University's official list of required great books, which includes no work by a black writer, suggests that even at the highest academic levels white Americans have trouble dealing fairly on racial issues.
The infamous remarks of Jimmy the Greek Snyder and Al Campanis, the continued display of the Confederate flag as a more-or-less official symbol in a number of southern states and the refusal of the federal government to elevate racism to the level of serious concern are evidence that racism, 1980s style, isn't necessarily subtle.
At the most blatant levels, it takes only a list of names to make the point: Bernhard Goetz, Howard Beach, Forsyth County and Tawana Brawley, the black New York cheerleader who says she was gang-raped by six white men.
Racism still abounds in this country, though obviously to a lesser degree than formerly, and its effects still limit the opportunity and cripple the spirit of black Americans.
But for all that, it seems clear to me that racism is no longer the biggest threat to black America. That dubious honor lies much closer to home, in what is happening among blacks themselves.
Racism can be compared to the unfairness by which your grandfather cheated mine out of some of his property. That injustice demands to be redressed, the property lines redrawn.
But only a fool would stand at the fence screaming about property lines when his house is on fire.
Black America's house is on fire, and the evidence is plain to see:
More than half of the black babies born in America are born out of wedlock, largely to adolescent mothers who lack the knowledge and the resources to get their youngsters off to a decent start in life.
Illicit drugs sold by blacks to blacks are turning entire communities into disaster areas.
Academic failure, including the deliberate rejection of academic exertion as unacceptably "white," is producing a generation of black Americans woefully unprepared for the increasingly technical demands of the work place.
The leading cause of death among black youth is homicide, most of it involving blacks killing blacks.
It is not merely unfair to attribute this dismaying conflagration to racism; it is a distraction. We are obsessed with the search for racist arsonists when our time would be far better spent forming bucket brigades to douse the flames. There will be plenty of time to demand indemnity, if we still find that worthwhile, after the fire is out.
I do not doubt that racist sins, both of commission and of omission, are to blame for much of what is happening in our community. The lighted matches of overt discrimination and the oily rags of neglect have put the house in peril. But the urgent need now is to extinguish the flames.
A lot of us who understand that, and who understand further that the firefighting responsibility must be assumed by the occupants of the burning house, are reluctant to say so for fear that to do so is to let white people off the hook.
Imagine trying to combat the AIDS virus by focusing on its origins. We might be able to trace the first AIDS contamination in the United States to a Canadian airline steward. We might be able to show that AIDS first surfaced in East Africa (though the evidence for that is unreliable at best). But supposing we were able to trace the virus to the northeastern section of, say, Uganda, and to green monkeys of that region, and even to the particular green monkey that started the whole thing, what would we do with the culprit? Demand that it apologize? Wouldour tedious and successful search reduceby even one the number of deaths due to AIDS?
The reasonable course for dealing with effects of racism is the course we are taking with AIDS: to learn as much as we can about how to cure it, how to immunize ourselves against it and how to halt its tragic spread.
It is, in any case, a difficult undertaking, but I believe we have the wit to do it if we can bring ourselves to focus on doing it as our highest priority.
Sadly, we are more concerned with finding villains than with effecting cures. We are wasting our time, and precious lives, in a pointless search for green monkeys.