Why is America so much in the grip of racial tension right now? If a Martian who had just landed here or the ghost of Alexis de Tocqueville asked you that question, your immediate answer might be that just by coincidence, we've had a run lately of racially charged criminal cases: the Marion Barry trial in Washington, the Bensonhurst and Tawana Brawley and jogger cases in New York, the Stuart case in Boston.

But it must go deeper than that. For a trial to reverberate through an entire society, it has to be about the society's obsessions as well as the particular crime. It is no accident that the Deep South, during the long reign of Jim Crow, regularly produced the kinds of courtroom racial dramas that have now become one of the defining features of life on the East Coast: the Scottsboro Boys, Emmett Till, Byron de la Beckwith.

All of them touched on themes that will be extremely familiar to any present-day resident of Washington -- the white fear of the lawless, oversexed black male; the black conviction that whites can do anything to blacks and get away with it. During the first half of this century, southerners would look at the trials that riveted the North with some bewilderment; the ripples caused by a case like Sacco and Vanzetti (Boston, 1927) bespoke a society with an entirely different set of subterranean passions involving immigration and political ideology.

The explanation of why this part of the country has adopted the traditional southern preoccupation with race is pretty simple. The South, before World War II, had the two essential preconditions for a supercharged racial atmosphere. First, it's a sad truth that in this country, wherever large numbers of blacks and whites live in close proximity, there seems to be racial tension. On the eve of the war, three-quarters of black America was still southern, and three quarters of southern black America was still rural; hence the rural South was the national epicenter of bad feeling between the races.

From about 1970 onward, as a result of the great migration out of the rural South, black America has been mostly nonsouthern and overwhelmingly urban; the places where the largest numbers of blacks and whites live together are the big cities of the Northeast and the Midwest. Is it any wonder that the problem of race relations shifted its locus too?

The second precondition for society-gripping racial troubles is that things must seem stuck -- there has to be a gap between the promise and the reality. In the South in the long years between the dismantling of Reconstruction and the triumph of the civil rights movement, when blacks were citizens by national law but not by local custom, that was obviously the case. Today in the cities, things seem stuck again. The poor black slums are in a parlous state of deprivation and disorganization that causes terrible suffering among their residents and has the additional bad effect of poisoning race relations in the wider society.

In the black middle class, there is a feeling that the conditions in the ghettos would not have been permitted to persist this long if the people living there were white and that, in the eyes of white people, the ghetto provides the overriding image of all of African-American life and culture. Whites, at the gut-emotional level, see the ghettos as home to a criminal class that has rent the fabric of city life and whose misdeeds are constantly being denied or explained away -- even justified! -- by black authority figures.

The black middle class is stuck too. It has its economic base in government employment; the Great Society's expansion of government at every level was a tremendous boon in what might be called Black Middle America. The antitax, antigovernment mood that has swept through American politics since the late 1970s has constituted a direct hit on black middle America, just as much as the rise of the Japanese automobile industry has been a direct hit on Midwestern industrial workers.

The largest federal agency eliminated entirely by Ronald Reagan, the Community Services Administration, was also the federal agency with the highest proportion of black employees. The one growth area for black government employment that survived the 1980s, the military, is about to be cut too. One of the most reliable verities of American life is that in the politics of any group whose livelihood is threatened, there will be a note of anger and bitterness.

A final change in the racial situation of the East Coast in recent years is that there is now such a thing as race relations within the upper-middle class, at least during working hours. During and before the 1960s, the whole world of law firms, corporate headquarters, newsrooms, faculty clubs, think tanks and so on was almost entirely white; upper-middle class whites have personally experienced the tensions of race relations for only a generation. I suspect that one reason the white upper middle class is so convinced that racial tensions are increasing right now is that they -- we -- are just getting used to the idea that race relations aren't any longer something that happens only to other folks. It doesn't help that the overriding racial policy issue for the upper middle class, affirmative action, is the subject of bitter disagreement between the races.

It is an extremely dubious proposition that if only we could get through a couple of years without another one of these big trials, racial calm would descend. It's going to take more than prosecutorial quiescence to improve race relations in urban America.

Among whites, there's a feeling that the real answer would be for "responsible" black leaders to emerge who would denounce Marion Barry, Minister Farrakhan and Al Sharpton, and preach values of thrift, industry, responsibility, sobriety and chastity. This, again, is a familiar southern theme from bygone days. William Alexander Percy, the sage of Greenville, Miss., wrote in 1941, "the Negro's . . . leaders betray him, either from their childish ambition to appear 'big shots' or from their willingness to exploit his simplicity. . . He turns . . . to his . . . preachers, uneducated, immoral, and avaricious." Whites in Washington no longer write such things, but they certainly say them privately.

Among blacks, there is a vision similar in kind if completely different in tone, in which the black community is rehabilitated from within, through new leadership that inculcates an ethic of racial solidarity and pride.

I doubt the new-leadership scenario, in either its black or its white version, will turn out to be our salvation. A substantial improvement in race relations would be a vast accomplishment, and things on that grand scale don't usually happen without their being driven along by powerful economic, social and political forces. Past substantial changes in the quality of American race relations have been brought about by events on the order of magnitude of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, World War II, the mechanization of agriculture in the South and the civil rights movement.

To be optimistic, we might say that we -- blacks and whites in the big cities -- are still getting used to each other, and that over the generations things will naturally improve. To be realistic, the current state of affairs will have to change in some profound way before race relations improve. The best way to make that happen would be for us to take on, as a society, the project of addressing comprehensively the problems of the ghettos, which (as a visiting Martian or Tocqueville's ghost would recognize instantly) constitute the great obvious failure in our domestic life and the most pressing piece of unfinished business in our long-running quest to solve the American dilemma.

Yes, I'm talking about government programs -- programs to make the streets safe again, to improve inner-city education, to train people for jobs and then find them the jobs for which they've been trained. These would have a multiplicity of advantages: if they were run well enough to produce real results in terms of improving life for the black poor, they could help heal the severest grievance between the races, which is a deep tangle of feelings abut crime and poverty. They would provide jobs that would shore up the black middle class.

In the course of a major national effort to reduce black poverty, there would be many situations in which blacks and whites interacted in public life in a situation of cooperation rather than conflict. The new leaders everyone is longing for might emerge. The civil rights policy debate would switch from affirmative action to antipoverty programs, an area much richer in the potential for consensus and good will. We might even recapture in such a noble cause some of the sorely missed moral righteousness and certitude of the civil rights days.

By now Washington is so deeply imbued with the conviction that antipoverty programs have never worked, can never work and would cost more than we can ever possibly afford that anyone calling for major new ones naturally feels a little out of tune with the times. But times do change. The savings and loan bailout demonstrates that when something is seen as a national crisis that there is no choice but to solve, we find the money.

Those who can make their way past the sound-bite level of knowledge about the Great Society will realize that the reputed failure of all its works is really a seductive myth. Our racial problems are very patient: they'll hang around for however many years it takes us to summon the will to solve them.

The writer is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.