The character of the 1980s is already apparent. The decade is an echo of the 1950s. Men's pants are once again pleated, the big car is making a comeback, the functional equivalent of Dwight D. Eisenhower reigns in the White House and we are free, once again, to discuss with candor the major domestic crisis facing this country. I speak of the "Negro problem."

Of course, no one speaks anymore of the "Negro problem," the term having become pass,e around the time that Lucy and Ricky went into syndication. But the sort of thinking that once went hand in the hand with the word "Negro" has reappeared, and it is now permissable, under the rubric of candor, to say what for a decade or two was forbidden: Blacks can't cut it.

There are many variations of this theme, and they come from a wide band of the political spectrum. This being the 1980s and not the 1950s, raw racism is almost never the issue. In fact, you can find your usual affirmations of tolerance before evidence is presented that somehow manages to make what in the end is a racist case. The equivalent in foreign affairs is the criticism of the anti-South Africa demonstrations made by some right-wing writers. First comes a standard denunciation of racism, then an explanation that things are more complicated than they appear and then, finally, a warning that blacks are going to kill whites. Head for the hills, y'all.

The "evidence" when it comes to the problems of American blacks is the reputed failure of the Great Society. The argument is not just that the Great Society failed or that its success was slight but that it left blacks worse off. In fact, some critics would have you believe that the Great Society is second only to slavery itself as a catastrophe for American blacks while others say it succeeded in small ways that are really not appreciated. Either way, though, the Great Society came and went and black poverty is still with us. That's beyond dispute.

But having said that, the question then becomes: What's going to be done about it? In other words, will the new reality become an excuse for apathy when it comes to race and poverty? Will the failure of a particular strategy result in a failure of will to pursue any strategy? So far, the answer is a resounding yes. If anything, the new scholarship is being used to footnote the new stinginess. Not only is it cheaper not to do anything, but it is even better for everyone involved. This is the closest conservatives ever get to heaven.

What's this got to do with the 1950s? So far, not much. It's hardly racism simply to point out that some programs not only do not work but are counterproductive. It is very much like the 1950s, though, to use these data to come to the conclusion that nothing works -- that blacks cannot be helped because they cannot help themselves.

That, at bottom, is behind some -- not all -- of the criticism of the Great Society -- and anything that might take its place. This is a kind of gentleman's Shockleyism -- the notion that blacks by and large are either intellectually or culturally inferior to whites. Even if you do everything you can to help them, you cannot help them. It is better -- not to mention cheaper -- to leave well enough alone.

Whether this is the new racism or the old racism I leave to you. The point is that it is racism -- just another version of the old blacks-can't-cut- it thinking that was current up to the 1950s and that even infected the mind of the president, Dwight Eisenhower. The cruel irony is that in some cases affirmative action has reinforced the negative stereotype so that some people now feel justified in saying things that used to be called prejudiced. Now, it is labeled as honest. Somehow, though, it smells the same.

But in the same way that the Great Society did not eliminate black poverty, neither will inaction. That was tried -- and not just for less than a decade. It has been the prominent American prescription for the problem of black poverty. Unlike other more expensive programs, we are willing to try it over and over again. In the spirit of the new realism, it ought to be called what it is: apathy tinged with racism. The "Negro problem" is back.