Ed Dorn, a Washington liberal, and Tom Reilly, a St. Louis conservative, might not find a lot to agree on, but that isn't their frustration. What bothers them is that they have no common language in which to discuss their disagreements.

I know Dorn through his thoughtful monographs for a pair of Washington think-tanks (the Brookings Institution and the Joint Center for Political Studies). All I know of Reilly is his recent letter to the editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The two have never met. But listen:

"The liberal lexicon is flush with doublespeak and double standard." That's Reilly, presumably white.

"We need a new racial lexicon. We haven't improved our racial vocabulary in the 25 years since Stokeley Carmichael and Charles Hamilton tried to draw a distinction between individual and institutional racism." That's Dorn, decidedly black.

Reilly's beef is that the self-same racial attitudes can be good or bad, depending on whether the holder is black or white. "If I'm white and vote along color lines, I'm prejudiced. If I'm black and vote along color lines, I'm loyal. If I'm white and vote across color lines, I'm open-minded. If I'm black and vote across color lines, I'm an Uncle Tom."

His complaint, in short, is that the charge of racism is -- unfairly -- a one-way street: less a name for a set of attitudes and actions than a club to hit white people over the head.

Dorn's problem is that the club is too blunt, too imprecise, to describe the reality of racial attitudes. As he said in an interview before I saw Reilly's letter, "We need a way of distinguishing among the raw racism of the Skinheads, the race-baiting of a Jesse Helms or an Al Sharpton and the insensitivity of the Philadelphia editorialist who urged a contraceptive campaign for poor black women. And we need a way to talk about people who are doing what I call racial mischief."

Dorn would include among the racial mischief-makers the "innocent" conservatives who, while alert for every violation of racial principle, seem blind to racial reality. "It's as though if you make the right statements, you needn't concern yourself about actual outcomes," he says. "The mischief-makers can be frustrating at times, because one can never be certain whether they intend to cause harm: whether they are motivated by an odd sense of humor or a deeper malevolence. You don't really know if they are Puck or Freddie Krueger."

His mischief makers include the editors of the Dartmouth Review, whose racial attacks are always disguised as honest and innocent inquiry and the Education Department's Michael Williams, whose out-of-the-blue fiat banning race-specific scholarships caused anguish among blacks and consternation within the Bush White House.

Dorn is comfortable applying the racist label to the hard-core bigots and race baiters. But he thinks we need a different word to describe, say, President Bush, who really does seem to want to achieve racial justice, even while opposing the only two civil rights bills he ever dealt with. What sets Reilly off is racial inconsistency. "If I'm white and demand special consideration for my construction bid on city business, I'm unreasonable. If I'm black and demand special consideration, I'm compensated ...

"This is hypocrisy. It's liberal junk food. There is a groundswell of frustration over these liberal shackles of lower standards and expectations for different segments in our society. And it's dividing our country further on an issue that desperately cries for resolution."

Dorn wouldn't call Reilly a racist, even though he might disagree with him on the question of affirmative action. In fact, Reilly might accept Dorn's criticism that partisans on both sides tend to magnify statistical fluctuations into deadly trends. "On our side, we will take a small drop in {black} college attendance and interpret it to mean something far more sinister. On the other side, they'll take some isolated example of an unfair application of affirmative action and use it to discredit the entire notion, as though black people are taking all the jobs that rightfully should go to whites."

And Dorn might well agree with Reilly's conclusion that America "will grow and thrive as a society only when everyone is given the same opportunity and held to the same standard."

But only if they believed they were both talking about the same thing. As matters stand now, the only clear agreement between them is that they need a new, common language for the debate.