Let's go burn down a church."
Those shocking words have been said often recently by some Americans to others. Too often. More than 30 African-American places of worship have been put to the torch in less than two years. Terrible questions roar up with the flames. We'd better find answers to them lest this country become engulfed in what the late black writer James Baldwin called "The Fire Next Time" - racial civil war.
The first and most obvious question is fairly easy to answer: Do a majority of whites in this country think like the racist scoundrels who burn down African-American churches? No.
But, having said that, we haven't dispensed with the persistence of the subtle racial ill will that encourages the church-burners. Those of us who are white and who have hoped and prayed for harmony between America's two largest races have deluded ourselves for the last 25 years or so. We thought that life for black Americans was getting better because of the rapid rise of the African-American middle class, because of the increased numbers of blacks in managerial posts, in the ranks of entrepreneurs, in academia and politics.
But all of this has done little to ease tensions between the races. It has, instead, inspired a whole new set of white grievances - the belief that blacks have prospered because of affirmative action and other government programs at the expense of whites. Little credit, apparently, is given to the millions of African-Americans who have prospered without any backing except their own energy, determination, and vision.
The change in black leadership since the 1960s is chillingly dramatic. Where once the dominant figure was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who literally gave his life to advance the cause of interracial harmony and goodwill, the most visible charismatic now is Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, who excoriates whites in general, Jews in particular, and claims that AIDS is a conspiracy by a white government to destroy black America. The Nation of Islam also runs a program of healthy eating, abstinence from drugs and alcohol, and self-reliance.
It is doubtful that a majority of black Americans - poor, affluent, old, or young - fully subscribes to the racist part of Minister Farrakhan's message. But many - millions - do. Contented people reject such clarion calls to disorder and malevolence.
Many thoughtful African-Americans claim that the inner- city ghettos, where poor blacks live in squalor more typical of the third world than of America, are the true symbol of their race in this society. The persistence of the ghettos, they argue, means that mainstream America has given up on finding solutions to such wretched poverty, to racism in general.
The abandonment of the goal of greater interracial congeniality in our society is too terrible to contemplate. If many African-Americans believe that abandonment has occurred, so also, apparently, do some whites - their souls gnarled by bigotry. They further believe they can burn churches and get away with it.
For the sake of all of us, they must be proved wrong.
* Rod MacLeish is Monitor Radio's Washington editor.