At a White House meeting called to discuss social problems, a renowned writer was given three minutes to make a presentation to President Reagan. He gave it the old college try, telling the president that he ought to make a speech to a white audience in which he told them that most blacks were just like them -- thrifty, industrious, concerned with crime, worried about their children. Eyewitnesses to the contrary, it's not clear the president paid any attention.
It's not clear because nowhere in his Inaugural Address did the president mention black poverty and the huge size of that problem. Nowhere, either, did the president talk about the black family, a topic of that White House conference -- and a matter of concern and study elsewhere in the White House.
This is not, I promise, yet another Reagan- bashing column. It is, instead, one that only wants to point out that politically at least we are fast becoming the sort of nation the Kerner Commission once warned about: one black, one white. Consider that in the November election, Reagan won just 9 percent of the black vote and 66 percent of the white vote. Those, though, are just numbers. In language, they amount to what a Republican columnist is supposed to have told a Democratic colleague: We got the whites and you got the blacks and you can't win.
The awful truth is that's the awful truth. That sort of division would be bad as a matter of principle, but it is downright stupid just as a matter of politics. After all, the Democratic Party, its good intentions aside, cannot pretend to have solved the problems of blacks. On the basis of achievement alone, what amounts to an approval rating of 91 percent is hardly justified. A walk through the urban ghetto will tell you that.
In his book, "Losing Ground,' Charles Murray argues that Great Society programs designed to lift blacks out of poverty instead sank them farther into it. He says they weakened community and family structures, rewarded indolence and mocked the industrious poor. Lots of experts have criticized Murray's conclusions, not to mention his statistics, but even so a consensus of sorts has emerged: The Great Society may not have been a total failure, but it certainly was no smashing success.
The Reagan administration and the new conservatives offer a different vision to the black community -- a market-oriented one that's so different it may be improbable. You would think that after either the failure or the non-success of the Great Society, the mainstream black leadership would at least listen. By and large, though, it has not. Instead, it continues to ask for a revival of the Great Society. Sometimes it seems that new ideas get rejected just because they originate in the Reagan White House -- a tainting of the message by the messenger.
The president faults this reaction, faults black leaders for what he says is their failure of leadership -- and then contributes to the problem himself. He gets personal, accuses black leaders of "protecting some rather good positions," and refuses to acknowledge that racism remains an American reality. This failure at communications by the Great Communicator has cost him dearly. The polls say that 72 percent of blacks consider the president racially prejudiced. That's a damning indictment.
Arms control, the environment, the budget -- they're all important. But so is the plight of black America. It would be disastrous for the country if blacks, blindly bonded to the Democratic Party, refused even to listen to the GOP. That would discourage intellectual competition for the minds of blacks and political competition for their votes. And it would be equally disastrous if the White House, both inept and frustrated, reacted defensively, as it has, instead of creatively, as it should.
The president is in a position to avoid a political and intellectual division along racial lines. He's a political prodigy -- immensely popular, sure of himself and the direction he wants to take the country. History can hardly judge him favorably if he leaves his nation more racially divided than he found it. But history can wait. Many blacks cannot.