Black and white Americans are behaving these days like estranged and embittered lovers, less interested in repairing the relationship between us than in fixing blame for the divorce.
Blacks, feeling betrayed at what we see as the white abandonment of the ideal of racial equality, spend our time and precious energy "proving" that racism is the cause of everything that has gone wrong in our community.
No problem confronting black America is beyond our ability to demonstrate that racism caused it. If our children drop out of school, or have babies while they are still children, or succumb to the lure of drugs and crime or even kill each other, we turn our cleverness to proving that racism is behind it. Racists have killed our children's ambition, or underfunded their schools or denied them a fair shot at earning their way in legitimate jobs. Racists supply the drugs that ruin our children's minds and import the assault weapons with which they destroy one another. Not only is racism the ultimate cause of our difficulties, we argue, but white people know it.
Whites, of course, insist that they know no such thing. The success of blacks ranging from John Johnson, the Chicago publisher, to Doug Wilder, governor of Virginia, to Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, proves that blacks can succeed if they only work at it.
How, they demand, can they be held accountable for the decision of a youngster they never saw to quit school or peddle cocaine or turn up his nose at an entry-level job? Do they talk our girls into having babies and our boys into ignoring the children they sire?
As with alienated and resentful lovers, the argument has nothing to do with fixing the problems but only with proving that the other party is responsible for them, nothing to do with avoiding the divorce but only with demonstrating our innocence in the estrangement.
And as with disaffected lovers, neither party is able to say the obvious: it was partly my fault, too.
If we could moderate our bitterness and concentrate on reconciliation, we might find ourselves having a far more honest discussion of the differences threatening our mutual well-being.
Of course, blacks might say, some of the problem is our own fault. You haven't been entirely fair, but you've been fairer than you used to be. If you're willing to try to do better, we're willing to acknowledge that we haven't done as much as we could to take advantage of the opportunities we have.
It's true, whites might say. We haven't been fair -- sometimes out of spite, sometimes through inadvertence and sometimes out of sheer indifference. We have ignored your cries of anguish, caring only to prove that we didn't cause your anguish. We have twisted your calls for a more equitable arrangement into demands for special treatment: quotas. We have denied any role of ours in the inequity in order to deny any requirement on our part to help set things right.
And we both might ask a different question than the ones we've been asking: How do we work together to make things better?
As things now stand, neither side pays much attention to that fundamental question. Blacks often paint our situation in unnecessarily dismal colors in order to prove how awful whites have been. Whites, who honestly feel they haven't been all that awful, refuse to admit any part at all in the plight of blacks, fearing, like the parties in a divorce suit, that to admit to any unfairness is to establish the other side as innocent.
But attitudes that might make sense in influencing a divorce settlement make no sense at all if the goal is reconciliation. If we are concerned about reconciliation -- if we want to solve the problems rather than merely to hold them up as evidence of perfidy -- shouldn't we be looking for solutions that we might undertake in concert?
Shouldn't we explore ways to increase the opportunities for our children and to make sure they understand both the opportunities and the necessity of their own exertion? Shouldn't we look for ways to encourage the behavior we know leads to success? Shouldn't we make sure that there really are attractive alternatives to crime and despair?
I happen to believe that there is a good deal we can do, black and white, to address both the pressing problems of the black underclass and the continuing (though less blatant) discrimination against black professionals. We can improve our schools, revamp our health-care delivery mechanisms, strengthen our communities and work to minimize the animosities between us.
But only if we abandon our search for villains and focus on solutions; only if we can find the courage to stop trying to prove our innocence and face the simple truth that we need each other.