IT'S hard to get where you want to go by walking in the wrong direction. And that is what we've been doing with respect to race: walking backwards in the direction of renewed segregation. Not segregation imposed once again by law. But a separation of the races promoted by a variety of public policies - affirmative action among them. Not all affirmative action policies fit that description. Some amount simply to aggressive outreach - a serious search for minority candidates. And some appropriately force public and private employers with an egregious history of racial discrimination to hire blacks. Quotas - an insistence on getting the numbers right - are an appropriate remedy for documented racist exclusion.
The trouble begins when we fudge the definition of racist exclusion. In a fair society, it's often said, groups will be represented in the workplace, the classroom, and the legislative halls in numbers proportionate to their size. Thus something's very wrong when a symphony orchestra is short on blacks - by the standard of proportionate representation. Look at the numbers, civil rights advocates will often say, and discrimination is obvious. A head count will reveal racism at work.
In fact, numbers tell us something, but not as much as civil rights advocates tend to suggest. They don't, alone, prove racist exclusion - barriers erected by bigots who assume the superiority of whites. Very few blacks do graduate work in the sciences. Is racism the explanation? Groups all over the world (as the economist Thomas Sowell reminds us) are underrepresented and overrepresented in different walks of life for a variety of reasons - not all of which we can identify. In this country, Asian high school students are ``overrepresented'' on the math teams. White and other students are losing out to Asian competition. Why? We don't know; cultures are mysterious.
But blacks are special, it can be argued. They are underrepresented in our graduate schools, in the prestigious law firms, in art galleries, and in the highest echelons of the corporate world for one obvious reason: our sorry history of racism. That's why preferential policies make sense.
In fact, our shameful racist history does not fully explain black occupational and other patterns. In a period of increasing racial tolerance, black crime and the rate of black teenage pregnancy have both risen. No simple explanation like racism - historic or ongoing - can tell us why. Tales of villains and victims make for good stories but bad history and bad sociology.
We confuse complicated stories involving group culture with racist exclusion. And in doing so we provide remedies for disparities that are not the clear result of moral wrong. Those remedies carry a high price. Benefits based on skin color harden the lines that already separate ethnic and racial groups.
Take the issue of minority scholarships to colleges and universities. These are scholarships with a label: No whites need apply. They separate black applicants. Blacks are apparently different; they can't compete with whites. Whites and blacks are like apples and oranges - not to be confused. Separate funds for separate folks.
Blacks are protected from white competition in universities, in the workplace, and often in politics. We've created a tracked society. Small wonder that among blacks themselves separatism is on the rise. Black college students cluster at separate dining facilities, in separate clubs, and in separate rooms - with too few exceptions. It has become black conventional wisdom to believe that only black politicians can properly represent black constituents. And that black teachers can best teach black students.
Moreover, all-black public schools are becoming fashionable - sanctioned this time by blacks themselves. These schools and others are adopting ``Afrocentric'' curricular materials in which all subjects are viewed through the lens of race and ethnicity. Black plays and movies require black directors, one distinguished playwright has said; few eyebrows get raised.
Until the mid-1960s black separatism was a fringe movement. Integration was our indisputable goal. And that was the direction in which we were marching - slowly, steadily, and unmistakably. Not today. Malcolm X, once an obscure agitator, has become a black martyr - a prophet before his time.
Preferential policies further divide our divided society. They heighten color consciousness and promote tribalism by rewarding people on the basis of group membership. Tribalism means conflict - friction between people whose trust stops at boundaries set by race. We should abandon preferential policies - without abandoning blacks.
Race is our No. 1 domestic problem and much needs to be done. It's a job for us to tackle together. Separate solutions to a shared problem will not get us where we want to go.