Why We Can't Get Along

IN MANY CIRCLES, PRESIDENT Clinton's Initiative on Race and Reconciliation has elicited all the enthusiasm of a summons from a drill-happy dentist. It is simply not a subject most people associate with a good time--as it tends, more often than not, to breed despair. Nonetheless, many Americans feel compelled to give a national conversation on race a shot, out of a hope, perhaps demented, that such talk may make things better. And nowhere does such hope blossom more bounteously than among writers who this season have churned out a mountain of books that aspire to move beyond what James Baldwin called the ""obscenity of color.''

One of the more noteworthy comes from David K. Shipler, a former New York Times correspondent who won a Pulitzer for his book ""Arab and Jew.'' This time Shipler focuses on blacks and whites. His method is to roam the land, speaking to ordinary people. The product of his odyssey is A Country of Strangers (607 pages. Alfred A. Knopf)--a perceptive work that is also relentlessly (probably overly) depressing.

In his travels, Shipler encounters white parents who see nothing wrong in a Cub Scout leader calling a child ""blackie'' and blacks too uncaring to attend the funeral of Guatemalan neighbors killed by a black gunman. He spends time in diversity workshops, on college campuses and with a huge cast of characters whose defining trait is racial clumsiness. He ends up convinced that connecting across racial lines is among the most difficult things on earth. And he seems stunned when people actually try--as with a black cadet at the Air Force Academy who patiently explains to a white Southerner why the Confederate flag makes him uncomfortable. Even partners in interracial marriages cannot, in his view, put race behind: ""Those who try to park race at the curb usually find society has cunning ways of pushing it inside the door; in the end, biracial children will bring it home and put it in the middle of the dinner table.''

Shipler strives to put an upbeat spin on what he has found and concludes with a prayer that whites will become better listeners and that blacks will help them--even though the book leaves little reason to believe that will happen.

Jonathan Coleman, a journalist and author of A Long Way to Go (451 pages. Atlantic Monthly Press), approached his task similarly. Coleman's journey, however, was not across America but to Milwaukee. His story unfolds from the perspective of several local characters. The most colorful is Michael McGee, a politician and Black Panther with a penchant for brandishing guns and threatening violence. Others include a woman in the midst of discovering ""the privileges I have as a white person'' and a black girl who, despite being dropped by her white pen pal once he discovers her race, resolves to ""rise above the prejudice.''

Coleman comes across as a compassionate man wrestling with hard questions: Is integration inherently good? Can merit and equality coexist? Is racism really the problem? He doesn't exactly throw up his hands in despair but urges his fellow white Americans to ""keep trying to change hearts and minds,'' while advising blacks not to hold their collective breath. Still, at times one wishes for a surer guide with a stronger sense of where he wishes us to go.

David Simon and Edward Burns's The Corner (543 pages. Broadway Books) makes no pretense of solving knotty racial questions. The book, strictly speaking, is not even about race. It chronicles a year spent in a predominantly black, drug-drenched neighborhood in West Baltimore where death comes early and hope comes hard. Simon and Burns returned with fascinating snapshots of life on the streets and a vivid sense of why it is so hard for some members of the underclass to find their way into the light. One leaves this book with a voyeur's sense of having witnessed lives in depraved and desperate states, and with absolutely no inkling of what can be done to improve them.

Journalist Jim Sleeper's Liberal Racism (195 pages. Viking) takes aim at ""friendly racism.'' He believes liberals have betrayed their principles in abandoning the push for a color-blind world. The emphasis on differences, on diversity, on double standards, he argues, is both corrosive and unproductive: ""Liberals must lead struggles against discrimination and abuse. But, for those struggles to succeed . . . liberals must let race go.'' In Reaching Beyond Race (191 pages. Harvard University Press), political scientists Paul Sniderman and Edward Carmines come to the same conclusion. Leaning heavily on public-opinion polls, they argue that racial prejudice has little to do with white opposition to affirmative action but that the concept of preferential treatment simply strikes many as fundamentally unfair. Race-specific programs, they argue, will never overcome that objection, but programs to help the most needy can--if they are not racially targeted. So they challenge liberals to fight for what they have a chance of winning: equality on nonracial terms that most Americans can accept.

It is not a particularly original argument; what is fresh, however, is Sniderman and Carmines's discussion of stratagems to trick poll respondents into revealing their real views about race. That discussion alone makes the book worthwhile. Moreover, their sense of American sentiment is very likely right. Most Americans do agree, intellectually at least, that people should be judged for themselves, not for their race. The problem is that the abstract view of what should be does not comport very well with what many people see as reality--which is a country composed of us and them, where race tends to trump universalist ideals.

In an essay published in 1985, Baldwin observed: ""We are part of each other. Many of my countrymen appear to find this fact exceedingly inconvenient . . . But none of us can do anything about it.'' In reality, many not only found the idea of mutuality ""inconvenient''; they flat-out didn't accept it. Which is precisely why we have landed where we are: in a muddle, unable to agree on the common good because we're so focused on our individual groups and gripes.