To think seriously and honestly about South Africa's racial dilemma is (for me, at least) to make a series of false starts to nowhere.

The premise is easy enough: that it is wrong for the white minority, whose antecedents are European, to rule the black majority, whose roots are African; that it is particularly wrong that the minority should govern so ruthlessly without any semblance of the consent of the governed; that it is unacceptable in a world claiming to be civilized that any people should be denied the fundamental rights of citizenship in the land of their birth and heritage.

But since expecting white Afrikaners to relinquish their awesome power to the black aborigines is no more realistic than expecting white Americans to hand control of this country to the American Indians, the question is: How can this fundamental injustice be remedied?

Two groups of optimists think they know. The rosy-eyed optimists are convinced that the white minority government can, by the prospect of some combination of economic pressure and international embarrassment, be nudged in the direction of racial justice. These idealists include Randall Robinson, head of the Free South African Movement that is leading the daily pickets at the South African Embassy here, and Chester Crocker, architect and defender of the U.S. policy of "constructive engagement." Admittedly, the two would find little on which they could agree, but the fact is that both believe the U.S. government, through a proper use of its diplomatic and economic influence, could move South Africa toward an acceptable solution. The key difference between them is that Crocker would use the carrot of warm relations, Robinson the stick of economic sanction.

The bloody-eyed optimists would support Robinson, not because they believe his approach would work directly but because they are persuaded that all-out economic sanctions would hasten the day of all-out civil war, which blacks, by reason of their superior numbers, would win.

I find it hard to follow either scenario to a reasonable outcome. The ruling whites obviously value American investment and American good will -- but surely not more than they value political and economic control of the land they have ruled for about as long as whites have ruled America. In other words, whether in response to Crocker's carrot or Robinson's stick, the South African whites can be expected to do little more than put a prettier face on apartheid.

As for the path of all-out war, it's hard to see how the blacks could win. If the government is willing to fire automatic weapons into crowds of black mourners, knowing that those whose good will they covet are watching, what would they stop at if their very survival were at stake? Is it really credible that the most sophisticated military on the continent would balk at carpet-bombing the black townships if it came to that?

Perhaps the most seductive aspect of the various disinvestment proposals is the fact that white South Africans seem to react positively to them and black South Africans seem to encourage them. Both responses may be misleading. What the black majority seems to favor, and what the white minority seems to react to, is the threat of disinvestment. As with the blackmailer who threatens to reveal some dark secret, the threat is effective; the actual delivery is worthless.

I have heard the boldness of black South Africans who insist that while disinvestment and severing of relations with the Western World could bring economic ruin to them, it would hurt the whites more. Blacks are used to suffering, they say. But it occurs to me that the effect of disinvestment could be achieved by blacks themselves, simply by voluntarily giving up the jobs that disinvestment would eliminate. I find it instructive that no call for a general work stoppage has ever had much success there.

It's perfectly obvious what is wrong in South Africa. It's equally obvious what a just outcome would look like. What I find impossible to see is: How do you get from here to there?