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12:00 AM, Jun 24, 1996 • By DAVID FRUM
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"I consider it the saddest racial development of the last quarter century," he writes, "that as the black middle class expanded, the urban underclass grew even faster." Conservatives agree that this development is sad -- but they think they understand the linkage between the two phenomena. Driving the growth of the black middle class has been the expansion of government, especially state and local government. The 12 percent of America's population that is black provides 20 percent of the employees of state and local governments, 17 percent of federal employees, and more than 15 percent of the employees in America's elementary and high schools. Dinesh D'Souza points out that half of black professional males and two-thirds of black professional females work for some agency of government. But the same government programs that have provided some black Americans with middle-class employment have thrust poor blacks ever more deeply into poverty. Job security for teachers and principals helps the black middle class, but it makes it virtually impossible for anyone to do anything about the low quality of education meted out to the black poor. Washington's Marion Barry employs 43,000 people, virtually all of them black -- but he pays their salaries with crushing tax rates that have expelled productive enterprise from the District of Columbia and thus made it extraordinarily difficult for everyone else in the District to find work.

It's quite remarkable how the failure of past government policies to improve the lot of black America has convinced Wicker that those policies need to be pursued more zealously than ever. And the only explaation that Wicker can see for the reluctance of non-black America to fund ever more lavish public benefits and ever more stringent racial preferences is selfishness and prejudice. Integration, he claims, has "failed nationally because too few white Americans wanted it or were willing to sacrifice for it. "

So what should be done now? In his introduction, Wicker proposes the formation of a new political party to represent black interests. It's an astonishing idea, an amazing reminder of how insulated from political reality liberals of Wicker's generation have become. Back in 1970, when few liberals questioned the permanence of Democratic electoral dominance, it might have been vaguely plausible that a third-party threat would pull national politics to the left. But in 19967 Why not cut out the middle man and simply vote Republican in the first place?

Anyway, is it really true that there are such things as "black interests" any longer? Are the interests of black teachers really more like those of their black students than like those of white teachers? Are Vernon Jordan's interests really the same as those of the woman who mops his floors?

For that matter, is it really true -- as Wicker takes for granted throughout his book -- that whites and blacks can still usefully be seen as two homogenous groups, one the dominant majority and the other the subordinated minority? Is it not sometimes true, as the Supreme Court recognized when it struck down Richmond, Va.'s racial set-asides,that blacks can themselves form a dominant local majority just as capable as any white majority of twisting the rules to favor their own? Is it not becoming truer and truer that whites, now 75 percent of the American population and falling, are increasingly a subgroup of the population like any other -- a subgroup whose poorer members are becoming nearly as prone to crime, illegitimacy, and academic failure as the black underclass?

Maybe it's time to retire white guilt and black militancy and start from zero. Middle-class whites and middle-class blacks are only two of the groups that collectively compose America's multiethnic society. White hegemony is gone, or going. In the complex society of the future, it will seem absurd that blacks should enjoy hiring preferences not only ahead of whites, but Filipinos, Mexicans, Arabs, and Sri Lankans as well. On the other hand, the direction in which America is now proceeding -- toward rules that add Filipinos, Mexicans, Arabs, and Sri Lankans to the list of those to be hired ahead of whites -- is so shockingly unjust that it begs for backlash. A multiethnic society must base itself on the principles of equal justice and formal legal neutrality. And unfortunately, those are the principles that American liberals, in their pursuit of racial parity, have long since jettisoned. If ever there were a "tragic failure" in American life, that is it.

Contributing editvr David Frum's new collection of essays, What's Right, is now out in hardcover from BasicBookss.