BOSTON -- I have bought four cars in my life. Purchased them after a glance at Consumer's Report, a stab at comparison shopping and a massive attack of fear and loathing. Each time I left the lot with a car loaded with doubt. Could I have cut a better deal?

Let me be frank here. Before I got into car-buying, I thought that you paid for them like dresses -- the price on the ticket. I was 35 before I discovered that you didn't just negotiate for a car, you haggled.

I still think that I carry into the showroom a special aroma. The scent of a tire kicker. The perfume of an auto ignoramus. The smell of a patsy. They can sniff my kind at the door.

But now I am told that the problem is simpler than that. An elaborate research project by the American Bar Association says that auto deals are cut by gender and race.

The researchers sent testers -- men and women, white and black -- to make 400 visits at 200 showrooms across Chicago. Armed with the same script of negotiation, they came back with different offers.

This was the drill: The best deals were offered to the white men. White women were quoted a higher price. Black men higher yet, and black women were offered the worst deal of all. The range was nearly $900 from top to bottom.

I should feel validated by the statistics -- proof that I wasn't dumb, but done in. Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they aren't after you. There should be some perverse comfort in being part of a class action.

But reading the report, my one lingering thought was, "Damn, what a sucker I am."

It's politically incorrect, I know, to blame the victim. The researchers' instinct was to question whether the civil rights laws go far enough to protect the victim. But my instinct is to figure out how to stop being a victim.

There are, after all, times when it is hard to know whether the culprit is racism, sexism and/or plain ole suckerism. And this is one of them.

There is a larger point in the story of the car buyers. A point about race, gender, about class-action discrimination and individual responsibility. A point about those times when you are thwarted by color or gender. And those times when the only helping hand is at the end of your own arm.

If a company refuses to hire women, that's a civil rights violation. If a store doesn't allow minorities in the front door, call the cops.

But when the salespeople -- black and white, male and female -- all offer the best deals to white men and the worst to black women? When even the head researcher figures that the showrooms were less motivated by prejudice than profits? If they still get more money out of me than the white guy? Sexism meets suckerism.

In this case, the testers weren't allowed to go one-on-one in the auto bazaar and wrestle over the fine print on the air bag. So, we never found out what I also suspect: that somewhere on the real-life bell curve are not only white males who get had, but blacks and white women who cut good deals anyway.

To put it another way, when all is said and legislated, when all the laws against discrimination are on the books, you have won the opportunity, not precisely equal, to succeed or fail. You're more or less on your own. Congratulations and good luck.

Being discriminated against by race or gender doesn't absolve anybody from trying or for that matter from winning . . . as a person. After the court opens up the union, you have to make it as a worker. After the school is forcibly integrated, you get graded as a student. After you make it into the executive suite, it's up to you to figure out what the others may already know -- how the game is played and how the deals are made.

Somewhere in the second phase of the civil rights movement, we hit the hurdles "we shall overcome" only on our own. As Martin Luther King Jr. said: "When you are behind in a footrace, the only way to get ahead is to run faster than the man in front of you." King didn't have a car dealer in mind, but at some point, anyone who doesn't make the effort goes from being a victim of sexism or racism to being guilty of suckerism.

The Chicago team has offered proof and a warning. People get pegged at the showroom door, as other doors, by skin and sex. Now the difference between sexism and suckerism gets a test drive. For once, let the seller beware.

1991, Boston Globe Newspaper Co.