The youngsters, all black collegians, were discussing the relative merits of historically black versus predominantly white colleges, but one of them said something that I think has wider implications than any of us recognized at the time:

"One of the big advantages of going to a black school is that you have four years of not hassling about race. I know it's not the real world, and sooner or later you have to deal with the race issue, but it's nice to have a period in your life when you don't have to think about it all the time."

When I urged her to say more, she said something that has been on my mind ever since:

"Say there's a professor, or maybe another student, who doesn't like you. You may not know the reason, but at a black school, with black instructors and black classmates, you know it's not because you're black, so you do a personality check. Do I come on too strong? Am I argumentative? Does he think I'm trying to get by on b.s. rather than studying the material he assigned? Am I acting like a snob?

"Maybe he's just a creep, and it's not your fault at all. But the point is, with a black professor or classmate, you ask yourself the questions. If he's white, you'll probably just decide he's racist, and that's the end of it."

The point, which may illuminate much of the racial angst that so occupies us these days, is this: If race is a possible explanation for a negative comment or attitude, there's a strong temptation to conclude that it is the explanation. No introspection, no self-examination, no "personality check" -- and no opportunity for personal growth.

Black people used to joke about the applicant for a radio announcer's job who complained that he wasn't hired "b-b-b-because I'm b-b-black." I haven't heard the joke in recent years -- not, I suspect, because it's old but because it's no longer funny. We are too sure that any slight we suffer at the hands of whites is because we're black.

Racism has become our all-purpose explanation for every disadvantage. Racist editors "mess with" our copy. Racist bar examiners learn to spot "black" writing in anonymous bar exam papers and give the writer undeservedly bad marks. Racist policy makers depreciate our wisdom and insights. Racist personnel officers discount our re'sume's and interviews.

And in every case, the possibility exists that we are right. I talked recently with a friend who applied, along with a handful of whites, for a job as a congressional aide. He was the only one who was asked to take a written examination.

Had he run into a racist interviewer who was looking for a good reason to turn him down? Quite likely. After all, he didn't get the job. But it is also possible that my friend -- experienced and bright -- was being considered for a more responsible position than the one for which he had applied. And it is at least conceivable that (1) his test results are still being evaluated or (2) that his ill-concealed outrage at being singled out for testing made him appear "uncooperative" or "uncollegial."

I don't think he misread what was happening to him. But he might have; and if he did, he might have cost himself a good job.

That's the eternal risk of the automatic race-based explanation. The white professor who just might be trying to fan a spark of brilliance; the white personnel officer who just might be wondering if he has discovered a diamond in the rough; the white interviewer who just might be looking for a basis to turn a negative impression into a more positive one; the white judge who just may be trying to nudge a lawyer toward a more productive line of questioning but, if met with resistance and resentment, decides he's talking to a guy with a chip on his shoulder and the hell with him.

But even if the initial suspicions are correct, what is to be lost by giving the benefit of the doubt? At least occasionally, an innocent response -- the "soft answer {that} turneth away wrath" -- might prompt a racist to embarrassment, to the advantage of his intended victim. The response that says "We both know you're a racist" merely seals the disadvantage.

What I am about to say will sound like heresy to many -- probably most -- blacks. But I think reliance on race as the universal explainer does more harm than good. It inhibits our achievement by limiting our ability to try. It oversimplifies complex interpersonal relations and reduces our own role in their improvement.

It even mars our successes. Ask a well-placed black professional if he thinks he got his job because he is good or because he is black, and you'll be surprised how often the answer comes back: "Because I'm black." (A white person who even suggests that the black professional was hired because of his race is, of course, a racist.)

I can't say too clearly that the racial explanation may often be the correct one. But it is, in my view, frequently a damaging one. People who are successful are most often those who believe themselves to be in control of their own fate. The race-is-all explanation gives that control to others. It says that we are limited not by the things that we can control -- hard work, study, self-analysis -- but by two things that are clearly beyond our ability to change: our black skins and white racists.