The paradox is stunning. At a time when more blacks than ever have enstream; when more blacks than ever are working, living and being educated in integrated settings; when more blacks than ever are, by any measure you choose, doing well -- blacks are as isolated politically as they have ever been since Emancipation.
Black voters in Tuesday's election were singularly loyal to the ticket that suffered the most devastating defeat ever: more loyal than Hispanics or Jews, who tend to favor the more liberal candidates; more loyal than women, despite both the "gender gap" and the presence of a female running mate on the Democratic ticket; more loyal even than Democrats.
There is paradox and danger. The immediate danger, of course, is tha time when blacks insist that government programs and policies need to be fair and sensitive to their needs, their overwhelming loyalty for the other guy may have cost them the ability to shape or influence those programs and policies. (Even Richard Nixon was subject to enough black influence to support the affirmative-action Philadelphia Plan and to create the Office of Minority Business Enterprise.)
Ronald Reagan not only is unbeholden to blacks politically, but because they have made him the personification of all their problems, they may have lost even the ability to appeal to his conscience.
And the longer-term implications may be even graver. The combination of black political isolation and the seeming intractability of poverty in the black ghettos is as dangerous as a pile of oily rags in a closed room.
The question America's black leadership will have to face is: Where do we go from here?
Arthur Fletcher, the Washington businessman who was Nixon's assistant secretary of labor, has been wrestling with that question a long time. "I personally think that this may be the turning-point election for black America," he told me the other day. "Something had to happen to cause black Americans to question their own behavior."
That behavior, says Fletcher, a Republican, has put black America in the no-win situation of having all its political eggs in a single basket. That, he says, is the explanation for the thing that blacks constantly complain of: that Republicans ignore them and Democrats take them for granted.
"The question I ask is: Why did our drive for integration stop short of integrating the Republican Party? The usual answer is that the Republicans haven't made much effort to attract us, and sometimes seem actively hostile to us. I don't argue the point. But that didn't stop us from integrating the schools or the hotels or the lunch counters. Why do we have to wait for an invitation to consider the importance of making our influence felt in both major parties in this country?"
Nor, says Fletcher, is it just a question of blacks' being overwhelmingly linked with a losing political party. If that were all there was to it, they could simply wait for the Democrats -- who remain the majority party -- to return to power. But Fletcher believes there is a more fundamental change under way. "The nation is moving from a quasi-welfare state to an entrepreneurial state, and blacks have not caught on to that change. It's another of our dilemmas: we curse the status quo, and we fear change."
Fletcher thinks that individual blacks may be coming to recognize the point he makes, even if the official black leadership isn't.
"That doesn't really surprise me, though it does baffle me," he said. "I recall when (then Sen.) Sam Ervin put a rider on my appropriation to prevent me from carrying out the affirmative-action mandate, I tried to get the civil rights leadership to help me with the Congress. I couldn't get one of them to back me. You know what they said? They said they couldn't support anything the Republicans put forward, since if the Republicans favored it it was obviously a sham.
"That's the kind of thinking that got us in the fix we're in. And that's why we have to get ourselves involved in both political parties -- invited or not."