Benjamin DeMott has got it just right, in my view, when he argues that the myth of classlessness is one of the most destructive in American life {"The Delusory Lure of Race Politics," op-ed, Nov. 18}. He also has it just right when he suggests that racism has been a slickster's tool in the hands of those who want to deceive working-class and poor white people about their true class interests and their natural political allies.

But he has got it just backward when he argues that one of the first steps on the road to political sanity in this country is for African Americans to sign on to the proposition that for us, "the fundamental issue is class, not race."

From the gleeful dismantling of public enterprises in the South by white Redeemers intent on destroying all the works of Reconstruction, including those that helped ordinary whites as well as blacks, to the modern anti-tax binge fueled partially by Ronald Reagan's sharply etched picture of the black welfare queen, white voters in modest circumstances have been led by their racism into acquiescing in policies that absolutely skewer their own interests. It would surely be wonderful if moderate earners and the poor of all colors could get the arithmetic of ownership and wealth in this country into their souls and vote consistently for good schools, seamless health care, strong bridges, humane labor practices, job-producing investment policies and a firm safety net.

But it is the consistently successful racial politics running from Rutherford B. Hayes and his cynical compromise with Samuel Tilden, through Theodore G. Bilbo and George Wallace to the contemporary team of Horton, Bush, Sununu and Rollins that continues to destroy that possibility. DeMott traces this racism back to Reconstruction, but the base of the lies and deceptions that form the psychic foundations of America's anti-black racism goes back to the middle of the 17th century, when Virginians began telling themselves they were civilizing Africans by passing laws to enslave them in perpetuity.

Thus, by the time Thomas Jefferson wrote into the Declaration of Independence the sweeping egalitarian claim that underlies our myth of classlessness, the colonies had nurtured a slave culture and the psychic distortions required to sustain it for more than a century. A decade later, the Founding Fathers wrote slavery and its attendant racism into the Constitution, thus giving our racist ideology a legal standing that our egalitarian aspirations -- set forth in our non binding Declaration -- did not have. Racism was thus lathered into the foundations of our nation, and nothing -- not the Civil War, not Reconstruction, not the Civil Rights revolution -- has been able to blast it out of our culture and our psyches.

Maybe there will come a century when it is not so, but right now, America can no more cease inflicting racial damage on blacks than a hurricane can stop blowing down houses. And to ask blacks to give up the effort of trying to devise ways to defeat it is a little like asking us to step out on to the beach to have a word with Hugo.

When his interviewers at the Howard University radio station, Derek McGinty and Daryl Johnson, talked like this, DeMott thought they were "wrong to let this fester, wrong to keep coming back to the injustice." He wrote, condescendingly, I thought, "I understand the obsession." Maybe. But he doesn't seem to understand that blacks are not talking just about memories of pain, but are urgently concerned with today's devastation and tomorrow's living dead.

No other community in America has lived through the greed boom of the '80s with a third of its people in poverty. The rising tide did nothing for those boats. And the future looks hideously worse with half of black children under 7 having the shades drawn on their futures daily by the poverty in which they are forced to live. In holding on to racial politics, blacks are not caressing old wounds. We are, rather, assessing current damages and fighting to protect our future.

In a stunning two-part article in the New Yorker last fall, William Finnegan wrote about a young drug dealer in New Haven, Conn., whom he called Terry. Terry's parents and their siblings fit perfectly the descriptions of the wasted urban underclass, and Terry himself has a soul filled with such chaos that for him, the remote future is the day after tomorrow. Yet, his grandparents are the typical, up-from-slavery, out-of-the-South, hard-working, two-paycheck older people whom one might see on an AT&T ad. Their children -- Terry's parents' generation -- got caught in a double bind; the flood of black refugees from the farms after southern agriculture was mechanized and the shrinkage of our industrial job pool. The flood of country people overwhelmed the educational and social service capacities of our cities, and the industrial shrinkage knocked away the ladder into the working class. Racist fear and disdain then trapped them in ghettos that become more desolate and dangerous each day.

There is no question that Terry's parents' generation and his own are, by any standards, lower class and that their life chances are hurt across the board because of their class status. But it is undeniable that they were slammed into that class because of the great weight of their racial heritage. And more to the point, they are much more likely to be pinned down there than whites of the same class because of the pervasive hostility, loathing and fear with which they are regarded by much of white America.

For example, Common Destiny, the 1989 National Academy of Sciences report on the status of blacks, revealed that while the earning power of both white and black males with a high school diploma deteriorated between 1969 and 1988, the white male's lowest earnings were higher than the black male's top earnings and that the black's lowest point was insufficient to sustain a family of four above the poverty line. That severely restricted earning capacity helps explain why, by most estimates, fewer than 50 percent of black men under 30 are in the labor market and why, according to the National Sentencing Project, such a high proportion of young black males are under some form of criminal justice supervision.

During the Reagan years a whole cottage industry of right-wing intellectuals and policy makers worked overtime to demonstrate that the black poor are hobbled and sometimes dangerous because of their own moral failures and that, as to them, America has clean hands. There is also a widely held view that the nation addressed these questions adequately in the '60s and that since people like Toni Morrison and Michael Jordan can move through the opened doors, those who haven't done so just haven't tried hard enough, or simply prefer to go hungry and to sleep on grates in the wintertime.

Bried in DeMott's analysis are two false and hidden assumptions. The first is that somehow blacks at the top are unfettered by problems of race. That is foolish. Almost all the power in America is still wielded by whites. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) is cited by DeMott as an authority to support his proposition, and yet if the senator would look around he would see that the U.S. Senate is 100 percent white and that blacks constitute a minuscule percentage of all significant CEOs in the country and only about 1.5 percent of all elected officials. Moreover, the thin wedge of leading blacks have made few advances past the upper-middle levels of most U.S. institutions in the 20 years since the heyday of the civil rights movement.

The other is that whites who share DeMott's views about a class-based politics are somehow immune to the racism that pervades American society. That is not always the case. There are surely racially decent whites on the left (as well as on the right and in the center). But there are also whites in left causes as puffed up by individualism as the next American and equally engaged in that headlong rush toward self-gratification that somehow results in others, weaker and less lucky, being knocked off the side of the road as the race rushes by. And I have also found large dollops of unwarranted assumptions of racial virtue on the left, often accompanied by arrogance and indifference to hard racial issues.

Finally, DeMott tells us that "the manipulators are in command, believe me." Well, they've always been in command whether they were justifying racist behavior by telling us that blacks' cranial capacities were smaller than that of whites or that blacks weren't as good at baseball or that "our nigras are happy down here" or that race mixing would result from infusions of justice or that reversal of Plessy v. Ferguson would destroy the First Amendment right to free association. Now they say affirmative action is a special privilege. We'll fight through that too.

When DeMott tells us "that the problems that most plague blacks are not at bottom race problems," I understand the obsession. Racism keeps Americans from seeing their political interests clearly. Thus, DeMott wants us to stop fighting racism. But, since racism continues to injure us, we want whites to stop doing racism first. Nobody has put the point any better than Dean Haywood Burns of the City University of New York Law School at Queens College, who recently wrote in a book review in The Nation:

"A race-transcendent politics is most likely to succeed when the white community takes responsibility for overcoming its racism, not when the black community decides to forget about it."


The writer is a professor of history at George Mason University and a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.