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Americans like to think of their history as a success story. And so, by most measures, and for most people most of the time, it has been. Except, of course, for the matter of race. That issue has cursed the nation from the beginning, and we have never gotten it right, or even close to right. It is our abiding political and moral failure, and we seem, at this late date, no nearer to a solution than we have ever been. We don’t know how properly to approach our racial problem or even how properly to talk about it. It divides us black and white, liberal and conservative.

Given our confusions”and given the tendency of those confusions to wind up in bitter disagreements”we have a natural inclination to avoid the subject altogether. When there seems nothing useful to say, silence is an appealing option. But of course avoidance gets us nowhere, and the occasion of Black History Month seems an appropriate time to revisit our great national conundrum, looking not for grand revelation but for, perhaps, a measure of understanding.

We might begin with that brief, shining moment in the early 1960s when it looked like things might be different, when it seemed that America might finally have found the beginnings of a plausible path to racial reconciliation. That moment began with the March on Washington for civil rights on August 28, 1963, one of the proudest moral occasions of American history. Those of us who were there will never forget it.

The march was only the first of its kind in that incendiary decade, but unlike so many of the marches on so many issues that were to follow, there was no mood of bitterness, defiance, or alienation; all was affirmation and celebration. We marched for what was self-evidently good and necessary, and we believed that a society basically decent and just would respond accordingly. Time has obscured most of the memories of the occasion, but I vividly recall”and not just because history has enshrined it”Martin Luther King’s fabled “I Have a Dream” speech. There were lots of speeches that day and lots of entertainment (my only other vivid memory is Peter, Paul, and Mary belting out “If I Had a Hammer”), and attention began to flag. But when King’s turn finally came, he commanded notice from the start, and he held us in the rhythms of his extraordinary imagery and intensity. I remember that halfway through the speech an elderly black man a few rows ahead of me turned and remarked to no one in particular, “Man, don’t he talk fine.”

He did, and there is evidence that in the aftermath of the march the majority of northern whites had developed at least a degree of sympathy toward the idea of civil rights for blacks. Few of them could quarrel with the moral logic of King’s speech, and for many the guilt he rightly inspired about the nation’s racial history led them to agree with the conservative Republican Senate leader Everett Dirksen that civil rights was “an idea whose time [had] come.” It is difficult otherwise to explain the wide margins by which the historic civil rights bills of 1964 and 1965 passed in the face of adamant southern opposition. Public opinion polls of the time further bear out that interpretation: Congress was acting in accordance with, not contrary to, majority views.

And yet within a few years that hopeful moment of reconciliation had gone up, often literally, in smoke and ashes. What went wrong? The standard answer is that when King and other civil rights leaders brought their crusade north after 1965 they ran into stubborn opposition from whites who had found it easy to support reform in distant Dixie and cheer demonstrations in Birmingham and Selma, but who dug in their heels when the marches hit Chicago and New York and their own unjust racial arrangements came into question.

There’s no little amount of truth in that, of course, but an account of what happened to civil rights in the sixties and beyond that focuses only on habits among whites of prejudice, insufficient moral concern, and social lethargy is misleading and incomplete. The alienation of many initially sympathetic whites from the latter-day civil rights movement had varied and complex causes.

There was, most dramatically, the sense of a broken social bargain. When moderate whites supported civil rights legislation they thought they were doing the right thing. They also thought they were securing social peace. Activists had proclaimed “no justice, no peace,” and most Americans took the enactment of major civil rights legislation as at least sufficient down payment on the justice that would bring peace. But within two weeks of passage of the bill outlawing segregation in public accommodations in 1964, a major riot broke out in Harlem, followed by outbreaks in other northeastern cities. Less than five days after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came the conflagration in Watts, one of the deadliest race riots in the nation’s history. And there followed for several years a series of “long, hot summers” of violent racial protest.

Liberals and civil rights activists took the outbreaks as expressions of understandable black desperation whose ultimate source, as the Kerner Commission Report of 1968 declared, was white racism and whose only solution was massive government programs of social and economic reconstruction. Most Americans thought radically otherwise. In the wake of the endemic violence, white guilt dissipated and white outrage flourished. An implicit social bargain had, most people thought, been betrayed, and they firmly resisted the notion that the nation was so morally scarred by racial prejudice that it deserved to be torn apart. Furthermore, the increasingly manifest failures of the Great Society in the interrelated areas of poverty and race made them skeptical of the notion that the road to racial equality”now increasingly defined not simply as equality of opportunity but equality of outcome”lay in comprehensive government exercises in social engineering.

It also gradually became evident that the achievement of black progress was not so uncomplicated an affair as it had first seemed. The nation could more or less decree the end of segregation and the acquisition of legal rights: Laws and court orders, stimulated by an organized program of protest, did the trick. Movement from poverty to prosperity was altogether more difficult. Long-established patterns of discriminatory custom and habit were hard to get around. In addition, it turned out to be the case that some black Americans, especially those on the lower social rungs, were unable to take full advantage of the opportunities that now were open to them. Analysts gingerly pointed out that there existed within the black community elements of social pathology”family decay, welfare dependency, soaring crime rates, educational failure”that, whatever their historical origins, had taken on a life of their own independent of white prejudice and that would have to be fought and overcome by efforts within the community itself.

For those persuaded that the essential, even the sole, black problem was white prejudice, any focus at all on the internal problems of black culture could only be seen as a diversion and an evasion, evidence itself of racist attitudes. (“Blaming the victim” was the common phrase.) Racism was the problem, its elimination from the white psyche the only solution.

Others were not so sure. They became skeptical of the conventional wisdom of a civil rights establishment whose black members could think of the underclass”indeed, of much of the entire black population”only in terms of victimization, and whose white allies wallowed pointlessly and self-indulgently in liberal guilt. Both positions had the effect of treating black Americans as less than full moral agents, as people to feel sorry for, those to whom life simply happens. It seemed to the skeptics neither useful or true to view black progress as a gift wholly in the hands of whites to either withhold or bestow.

The arguments of the skeptics indicated a shift in public perception of the civil rights struggle. At the outset that struggle had clear and inarguable moral clarity. It was a fight for simple justice and simple decency. To oppose equal opportunity, equal access to public goods, and equal standing before the law was to be in the moral wrong. Christians knew that and acted upon it, as did all persons of good will not blinded by habits of prejudice and historically malign folkways.

But once fundamental rights had been inscribed in law and the struggle took on overtones of social and economic complexity it entered the ordinary world of politics, where moral ambiguity is the normal condition and moral earnestness becomes not merely insufficient but a hindrance to constructive public discourse. One could not with moral integrity oppose equal opportunity for all. One could, however, with full moral integrity oppose schemes of quotas or racial preferences that in the name of achieving equal opportunity for individuals imposed dubious systems of group entitlement. In the first instance the moral outrage of civil rights advocates was appropriate. In the second, it became a form of emotive self-display. James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time resonated in 1963; today we read it”if at all”as a historical document.

For decades the arguments about civil rights have languished in political and moral deadlock. The terms change”we speak now of diversity, not quotas”but the frustrations, misunderstandings, and animosities behind them do not. Passions have cooled somewhat out of weariness, but there’s not much sign of the “common ground” we invoke in our hopeful moments.

One big thing, obviously, has changed. We now have a black president, and Barack Obama’s electoral success indicates, if nothing else, that skin color is not an insurmountable obstacle to making it in America. It is also happily notable that so little of the public debate about the president, both before and after his election, has focused on race. Many of his supporters suggest that the old prejudices lurk not far beneath the opposition he encounters, but there is in fact little credible evidence for that suspicion.

President Obama has (almost certainly wisely) made as little of his racial identity as he reasonably can. He seems to understand that perhaps the best present approach to race is one”oh, the irony”of benign neglect. Someday, maybe, he and we can get beyond that. To do so we will, at the very least, have to give up our illusion of mastery, our unthinking and dangerous faith that for every significant social problem there is a readily available solution”one, moreover, that all people of good faith must agree about. In such modest giving up, perhaps, lies the beginning of wisdom.

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