In the current controversies over such things as "white flight" and "affirmative action," we often see ourselves and our times as more special than they really are. Skin color differences also make it easy to see certain patterns between blacks and whites. But similar patterns have existed among people you could not tell apart with the naked eye.

When the Irish immigrants first arrived in America in the 19th century, old Anglo-Saxon families left their neighborhoods in great haste at the sign of the first Irishman moving in. A generation or so later, the Irish fled as the first Italian immigrants started moving in. Old German families moved out in a panic when the first Jewish immigrants moved in.

There were a few middle-class black families in northern cities during the great immigration era back around the turn of the century. They behaved just like the white middle-class. When Polish immigrants started moving into their neighborhoods in Detroit, the blacks moved out. "Black flight" also occurred in New York, when Italian immigrants moved in. Harlem was once a middle-class white community. Middle-class blacks started moving in to get away from the Irish in midtown Manhattan.

Even busing controversies are not new. Back in 1904, the New York City Board of Education wanted to bus children from overcrowded schools on the East Side to West Side schools that had plenty of space. The only problem was that the East Side children were Jewish and the West Side children were Irish. The uproar was tremendous -- and the Board of Education had to back down. The East Side schools just remained overcrowded.

The fact that something has been going on a long time doesn't mean that it is right. But it does undermine some of the popular theories about what is happening today.

For example, it is often regarded as strange (or even sinister) when schoolchildren of one ethnic background are taught predominantly by teachers from a different background. Or when the rank and file of an organization is from one group and the leaders are from another. Or when people are not evenly "represented" in various activities according to their proportion of the population.

No even statistical "representation" has ever been common, for anybody.

When the Irish immigrants' children went to public school, they were taught by Anglo-Saxon schoolteachers. There were very few educationally "qualified" Irish at that point. Similarly, when the Jewish immigrants' children went to school, decades later, other teachers were more likely to be Irish than Jewish. Still later, when I went to school in Harlem a generation ago, most of my teachers were Jewish.

Similar patterns existed in politics and labor unions. Those who were there first and had more experience were likely to be leading those who came after them. Irish politicians represented Italian and Jewish neighborhoods, on into the early 20th century. Irish labor leaders likewise led unions long after the Irish rank and file had gone on to better things, replaced by new workers starting at the bottom. Elderly Jewish union leaders heading predominantly black and Puerto Rican unions in New York today are nothing new.

For similar reasons, current programs for "minorities" in general are more than likely to fall under the control of blacks, who have been at this sort of thing longer. But most minority people in the country are black.

Within the black community itself, there has been no random pattern of leadership "representation." Most of the top black leaders in history have come from families who somehow got a head start over other blacks in earlier generations. Some of their ancestors were freed from slavery long before the Civil War, and were on their way up while other blacks were still in bondage.

W. E. B. DuBois and other founders and early leaders at the NAACP were from this background. So too is Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander and former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young are from families that have gone to college for generations -- that is, longer than most White Americans.

The overwhelming bulk of black professionals in this country come from a very few families, who typically have more than one doctor, lawyer or academic. The alumni of five black high schools would account for almost all the leading black pioneers in medicine, law, the military, politics and academia. There has been nothing random about it.

The American ideal is for each individual to stand or fail on his own individual performance, not the accident of birth. It just so happens that the accident of birth and upbringing turns out to have a profound effect on performance, or even on what the individual wants to do. No sinister Machiavelli planned it that way, or pulled strings behind the scenes. Most whites in power have known little and cared less about the internal patterns of the black community.

There have been many deliberate actions and policies toward many groups that needed correction -- and still need correction. But claiming that every deviation from random statistical representation falls into that category is a very big and arbitrary assumption.