As a columnist for the New York Times, Tom Wicker stood for 25 years among America's preeminent liberal journalists. What he said in the thousands of pieces he has published since the mid-1960s, he is saying again in Tragic Failure: Racial Integration in America (Morrow, 218 pages, $ 25). It is as if none of the ideas that have transformed American thinking about race in the past quarter century has reached Wicker in his writer's lodge in Rochester, Vt.

Reading Tragic Failure is a peculiarly claustrophobic experience, like a weekend in colonial Williamsburg or Nantucket. Fully one-quarter of the footnotes in the book refer the reader to articles in the New York Times. It's jarring to put it down and return to the contemporary world of e-mail, personal computers, and 1997 model year cars. The book isn't a defense of liberalism, because it won't engage with any of the conservative critique of liberalism. It is rather a restatement of the ancient liberal truths -- not one word has been added, not one word has been taken away.

Wicker's world is the world of Eyes on the Prize. Blacks are always noble -- but also pathetic and powerless. Whites are always smug and callous - - but also securely in control. In Wicker's world, blacks can flourish only when whites help them and must fail when whites do not. One anecdote in the book sums this whole world up. In the early 1980s, Vernon Jordan attempted to enter a Florida bar and was shut out by the woman at the front door. Meanwhile, a group of whites was admitted. Jordan reminded the woman of the 1964 Civil Rights Act; she told him she didn't care. Wicker reports that Jordan concluded that the woman at the bar had been encouraged indirectly by " what she heard coming out of Washington" -- that is, from the Reagan administration. End of story.

One wants to ask: And then? What did Vernon Jordan, superlawyer, multimillionaire, friend of presidents and governors, corporate director, backed by all the civil-rightsstatutes of the United States and by the full rigor of Florida's tort law, do then? What did the governor of the state and the mayor of the city do? And what happened to the minimum-wage bigot who affronted him? If I were Vernon Jordan, I'm not sure I'd appreciate a telling of this story that represents me as a pitiful victim, and the clerk at the bar as a member of the ruling class. If I were Jordan, it would occur to me that it's not just the bigot at the bar who will never be able to see me as anything but just another black -- it's also some of those who regard themselves as my friends.

Nobody doubts that incidents like the one described by Jordan to Wicker still occur in America, as do subtler forms of discrimination throughout the labor and housing markets. But it does seem rather incredible that anyone could write a book at century's end about America's racial dilemmas on the assumption that discrimination plain and simple -- what Wicker condemns as whites' "fear or hostile instincts about black neighbors or employees or schoolmates or job competitors" -- is the sole, or even most important, cause of America's racial troubles and black America's economic and moral plight.

Is it really racial discrimination that accounts for black illegitimacy and crime rates? If so, why are those problems worse today than they were forty years ago? Is it really racial discrimination that explains why the percentage of black men enrolled in college has not increased in a decade, despite a vast network of implicit and explicit racial preferences? These are polemical points, it's true, and they've been made so often before that it's tedious to read them again. But Wicker shows no sign that he's ever encountered them or that, if he did, he would take them seriously.

"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.

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