This one is for the friend who thought he saw just a hint of support for separate-but-equal in a recent column of mine. What I had written was that the education of black children, particularly black children from low-income families, has reached the point of crisis.

Without abandoning the ideal of racial integration, I said, it seems that educating our children must become a higher priority than integrating them. My friend didn't disagree with any of that; what disturbed him was his sense that I was letting segregationists off the hook.

All right, my friend, maybe I was. But you've known for a long time that my primary interest is in getting our kids educated. If we've got some time and energy left after that, then I'm willing to spend some of it punishing segregationists. Even so, I'd want to think long and hard about using our children as instruments of that punishment.

But the point I was trying to make the other day is a little more subtle than that. What I was trying to say is that the Senate's anti-busing vote (which triggered the earlier column) is likely to get us involved in an exhausting fight that, even if we win it, won't do much for the children.

How can I put it? Let's say you've got a kid who is suffering from an illness which, left untreated, will permanently cripple him. A bully comes up and snatches the kid's bicycle, the one you scrounged and labored and sacrificed to get for him. What do you do?

Well, if you can catch the thief and also attend to your child's illness, you do both. But suppose you chase after the thief until your energy is exhausted, and then you sue the police department for not doing its job, bankrupting yourself with legal fees in the process. You rally your family and friends to search for the missing bike (which never worked as well as you had hoped in the first place) and finally--emotionally, physically and financially exhausted-- you find it.

Meanwhile your untreated child is hopelessly crippled. Even while congratulating you on your wonderful victory, I'd have to worry about your sense of priorities.

We worked long and hard for the shiny bike of school integration, though it never worked as well as we'd hoped. Now the Senate threatens to snatch it away. The question facing us is: how much of our time, effort and resources will we exhaust trying to recover the damned thing, knowing that even if we are successful in the effort, the children are likely to remain educationally sick? (If you doubt that, you ought to read some of the reports detailing the abuse-- the disproportionate suspensions, the misassignments, the exclusion from school leadership, the opportunities denied for extracurricular activities and the miseducation--that is visited upon poor black children even in integrated schools.)

My own sense is that we, lacking the resources of money and energy to see to it that our children are both educated and integrated, have made their integration our top priority. The results are socially questionable and educationally disastrous. Where integration has been achieved, it is educationally sound to try to make it work. Where integration is roundly resisted as "forced busing," my view is that the education of our children, in whatever schools they happen to attend, ought to be our priority concern.

There was a time when we believed that racial integration and improved education were synonymous. For middle-class children, it often is. But for black children of poverty, it seldom works that way. If we are concerned about the life chances of those children, we need to rethink our priorities.

Does that mean letting the segregationists win? Maybe not. The principle of money damages for civil injury is well established. If an apartment owner discriminates against you, you can sue for money. If you are a victim of police brutality, you can sue for money. If a department store employee falsely accuses you of shoplifting, you can sue for money. The financial settlement doesn't undo the offense, but it does make it easier to live with. It also serves to curb the abuse.

Doesn't it make sense to try this approach with regard to unlawful segregation? Making school districts pay for their unlawful segregation might make them less willing to segregate. Even if it doesn't, it will certainly make it easier for us to give our children a proper education. Isn't that what it's all about, my friend?