At the risk of reigniting some highly flammable people, I herewith recur to the subject of the black family, because some of my critics are practicing a perverse form of "compassion." Their "kindness" has a severe cost. It dehumanizes some blacks by denying that they have the capacity for responsibility, and hence for moral choice. In depicting them "compassionately," as toys of fate, it causes their personhood to disappear.

Recently I wrote to praise Bill Moyers' CBS documentary, "The Vanishing Family -- Crisis in Black America," which deals with the causes of statistics such as these: nearly 60 percent of all black children are born out of wedlock. Half of all black teen-age girls become pregnant. Many of the resulting "families" are hardly families and rarely are self-supporting. About half of all black children are partially supported by government payments.

I said: Civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, struggles against institutional barriers to blacks and for material amelioration for blacks, are largely irrelevant to today's catastrophe. Ameliorative programs are necessary, but are doomed to be overwhelmed if the family, the primary value- generating institution, collapses. Such alleged government failures as "failure to enforce the Voting Rights Act" are peripheral to the point of inconsequence regarding the social pathologies Moyers discussed.

Moyers highlighted a person named Timothy, the unmarried and unconcerned father of many children. I said, and say: Timothy is not a mere anecdote, he is a paradigm of those persons whose sexual irresponsibility produces misery but who feel little of the guilt that changes behavior. One reason they feel little such guilt is that they have been taught by reflexive "civil rights" rhetoric that they are mere passive victims, absolved by the all-purpose alibi of "white racism" from all responsibility for their behavior.

Now come two columnists who buttress my argument with their objections to it. Ray Jenkins is white. Carl Rowan is black. Both ask: Why such lack of compassion for Timothy from George Will, who has a son, Jonathan, with Down's syndrome? Have Jenkins and Rowan considered the logic of their "compassion"?

Down's syndrome is a genetic defect, present from conception, involving varying degrees of mental retardation and physical abnormalities. Jenkins says Timothy "is as much a victim of fate as Jonathan." Rowan says I am compassionate when commenting about afflictions such as Down's syndrome, "but Will's compassion and knowledge turn to meanness and ignorance" -- the light touch is not Carl's specialty -- "when he writes about another handicapped youngster, a ghetto lad. . . ."

Hold it right there.

"Youngster"? "Lad"? Rowan's exquisite sensitivity to racial insults would cause him to have an apoplectic seizure were any white person to refer to any black man as a "boy." Yet Rowan calls Timothy a "youngster," a "lad" -- Timothy who is 26 years old, who in the eight years he has been eligible to vote has caused eight pregnancies and says he had "a lovely time" doing so.

"Youngster"? "Lad"? A more apposite noun is: "man."

The great proclamation on placards in civil rights demonstrations 20 years ago was: "I am a man." It cut to the heart of the matter, the denial of the full personhood of blacks. Today people who think like Jenkins and Rowan demonstrate, unwittingly, and in the name of "compassion," that there are many ways to deny personhood. The essence of personhood is an irreducible element of responsibility for one's choices and deeds.

Timothy, having grown up in a social setting of material deprivation and moral underdevelopment and narrow horizons, is indeed somewhat a product -- a victim, if you prefer -- of bad circumstances. But consider the damage done by thinking of him, and telling him to think of himself, as just as much a "victim of fate" and "handicapped" as a child with a retarding genetic defect. Is it not obvious the harm such "compassion" does to the thinking of whites and self-esteem of blacks?

I say again: the Timothys are more of a menace to black progress than the Bull Connors were because only political will was required to remove the Connors. I now add: another menace to black progress is the "compassionate" portrayal of such black men as utterly passive victims, as no more to be judged than infants -- as less than men.

Again, the dignity of personhood is related to the capacity for responsibility in making moral choices. Persons with Down's syndrome do not lack that capacity.

Some people who advertise their "compassion" should suspend their self-congratulation long enough to consider this: black Americans should be spared the condescending "compassion" that portrays irresponsible black men as not really responsible because they are not really men.