BOSTON -- The man was talking about what he calls the "resegregation" of American life. He was a veteran of the civil rights movement, and went South as a student in the '60s, when whites and blacks fought American apartheid together.
The man went on to make his life in a Midwestern university, where he was my guide one day. Indeed he taught about race in America until he felt discredited on account of his skin color -- white -- and went into administration.
Walking me into the student union, he said: "Look." The tables in front of me were nearly as segregated as a lunch counter in the Alabama of the 1960s. There was just one table where black and white undergraduates ate in noisy camaraderie. They, my guide explained, were members of a varsity team.
Pausing, he counted on one hand the number of places where blacks and whites interact on his campus these days: in sports, in the arts or, he added ironically, in race-relations class. A few years back there was a shantytown on campus -- a makeshift protest against investing in South Africa. Now he was almost sorry the university divested because the protest had been one of the few actions that brought students together.
I brought this story home to a woman who disputed only one phrase: resegregation. We never desegregated, she says. An academic and black, she knows few people who ever had social lives that easily traversed the color lines.
As a mother, she sees her grade-school kids with friends of all hues, but her college students subdivided by skin color. So she also wonders when it happens and why. Many of her black students believe they can only integrate on white terms and turf. Many of her white students feel unwelcome by blacks.
Who was defensive and who was racist and who was just uncomfortable? And why this great silence today between blacks and whites about race relations in America?
Both of these academics, now enjoying the summer that is their chief professional perk, can cite incidents during the past year: graffiti, hostility, tension. Yet they would agree that these are by no means the worst days on campus or the worst years. They remember the KKK, Mississippi and legal segregation.
But they also know that nearly every campus holds a volatile mix of attitudes that in no way resembles a melting pot. In some places, whites believe that their black classmates were admitted because of their race. In others, blacks believe that whites believe that.
In many universities, the black search for identity -- their own place on a white campus -- can end up fusing blackness with victimization. In many universities, white classmates resent the racist label brushing them indiscriminately.
There is today a high degree of racial consciousness and a sorry lack of a language, of a forum, of a common ground where people can talking honestly about race. These two facts have given many campuses the look and sound of two cultures. And in these segregated places, there may not even be faith anymore in the value of integration.
Neither of my guides believes that campuses are unique in their sharp segregations. Quite the opposite is true, they say. Look around the office. Look around town.
In Washington, it is still almost impossible for blacks and whites to talk about the trial of Mayor Barry. To most whites in the nation's capital, the case was "about" the mayor and his alleged use of drugs. To most blacks the case was "about" the entrapment of a black leader. Across the great divide of the race, the words defied interpreters.
Even in journalism, bylines often come color-coded. White journalists are awkward writing about blacks, as if race were a qualification. Black journalists are often both required and discredited for writing about "their own."
And in our cities, there are neighborhoods as separated by race as ever in our history. There are people who speak for the "black community" and the "white community" as if their apartness was an accepted and permanent reality.
But universities have often thought of themselves as models, communities of scholars. At best, they are expected to uphold their own values. At a minimum, they are places where we are to think and talk deeply about what troubles the "real world."
The universities are reopening. They start each new year with a fresh curriculum. But what troubles the real world as much as anything these days is race relations. It's a problem that exists on a scale as large as a city. But it can also be seen -- and changed -- on a scale as small as a dining-room table.