"What more do you people want?" strikes most black Americans as a naive question.
After all, the abuse of racial profiling remains one of the nation's most serious problems (although some profiling will remain necessary in troubled communities to protect their own residents from harm). Racial discrepancies, subtle but decisive, persist in areas such as bank lending and health care. Black men are tragically overrepresented in the prison population.
Yet these remnants of pre-Civil Rights Act America hardly constitute the "reign of white supremacy" that some blacks still decry. The United States now has a lower percentage of black families living below the poverty line than at any time in the nation's history, and the figure is falling with every census.
It is difficult to see "apartheid" in a country in which the secretary of state, the national security adviser, the CEOs of Time Warner, American Express and Merrill Lynch, the presidents of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the American Bar Association and even the last James Bond and Austin Powers girls are African-American.
Blacks before the 1960s could barely have imagined racial preferences ardently defended by white administrators or that there would be black-studies departments in universities nationwide. Black politics in the U.S. are reflecting this changing reality. Increasingly, the African-American grimly convinced that the only difference in American race relations between 1964 and 2004 is in window dressing and etiquette is less an archetype than a personality type.
There are no indications that voting Republican will become the norm among blacks any time soon -- and a good thing, too, because being a slam-dunk voting bloc for a single party means that neither party has any reason to court your vote with meaningful proposals. But more and more, black politics are moving to a constructive center, wary of sad realities but open to the fact that change does happen.
In a poll conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in 2000, for example, 74% of blacks were registered as Democrats. By 2002, that number had fallen to 63%, with about one in four blacks -- many of them younger voters -- registered as independents.
In a 1995 Gallup Poll, almost all blacks favored affirmative action in the form of outreach to minorities, but 78% were opposed to hiring minority applicants when they were less qualified than white ones.
Al Sharpton's sad showing in the Democratic primaries is partly because of a desire among many to choose the more electable John Kerry in order to oust President Bush. But the fact remains that there are no new black leaders in Sharpton's mold. Pulling stunts like grilling Howard Dean on the black representation on his staff when he was governor of a state that had a mere 3,050 African-American residents in 2000 (0.5% of the state population), Sharpton shows he is old school, not a sign of the times.
Of course, most of us still know a black person or two who bring to mind Homey the Clown from "In Living Color," painting life as a black person in the U.S. as an endless battle against racist abuse. This ideology, increasingly difficult to square with reality, is a legacy of a stain that the past left on the African-American self-image.
In his 1951 classic, "The True Believer," Eric Hoffer noted that fanatic movements attracted people who found a balm for their insecurity by folding themselves into movements that stressed unquestioning allegiance. Forging true progress means engaging with the complexities of the real world, but this requires individual initiative. Therefore, fanatic movements sidestep logical engagement in favor of mythologies and recreational fury. Post-civil rights blacks have been ripe for such ideologies: Left with a sense that one is inferior, nothing could be more soothing than a new identity based on resenting a morally inferior enemy.
For the true believer, a paradisiacal future is the focus, which requires that the present be remorselessly condemned regardless of actual conditions. Hence the black "victicrat's" insistence year after year that "most" black Americans remain mired in misery.
In his day, Hoffer identified the Southern segregationists as the fanatics. But he was writing before the old civil rights establishment was waylaid by performance artists in the guise of politicians such as Sharpton.
To be sure, we become Pollyannas at our peril. We must blow the whistle loud and long when 45 blacks in Tulia, Texas, (16% of the town's black population) are rounded up on trumped-up drug charges by a racist detective. But we do not have to insist reflexively that putting time limits and work requirements into welfare programs is an "anti-black" act morally equivalent to vetoing anti-lynching legislation.
It's OK to look back, as long as you do not stare. Here's hoping that ever more we will place our votes according to how we actually feel -- left, right and center, with our eyes on the complexities of getting ahead in an imperfect but promising world.