"THE ISSUE of race reverberates in American politics like few others,'' reported the New York Times Monday as part of an analysis of the current tug-of-war between Democrats and Republicans over modest proposals for new civil-rights legislation -- or, Republicans say, a quota bill.
The Times is wrong. The accurate phrase is ''like no other.'' Race reverberates in American politics like no other issue, past or present.
It always has, as far as I can tell. Alexis de Tocqueville, who sat next to John Quincy Adams at dinner in Boston one night in the spring of 1831, asked the great man what was the greatest problem in the new republic. ''Slavery,'' Adams said. ''That is the root of almost all the troubles of the present and the fears for the future.''
So the Times, after discussing Willie Horton commercials, Jesse Helms' quota ads and the emergence of a politician such as David Duke, quotes Charles Black, the chief spokesman for the Republican National Committee, saying: ''The thing about quotas is that they remind people that Democrats are elitist social engineers.''
Give me a break. That line, and almost any utterance on the subject by political professionals from Mr. Helms to Jesse Jackson, should be right up there with, ''The check is in the mail''!
Tocqueville, speaking from the perspective of the somewhat more racially tolerant French, concluded his thoughts on equality in America with this note to himself:
''It's not now a question of equality before the law; that kind is complete in America. . . . But when one wishes to estimate the equality between different classes, one must always come to the questions of how marriages are made. That's the bottom of the matter. An equality resulting from necessity, courtesy or politics may exist on the surface and deceive the eye.''
Look at the social pages in any American newspaper today, the words and the pictures. We are intermarrying across lines of geography, economic class and religion as never before. People really seem to marry now by shared aspiration, by their own conception of where they are going in this life. But the racial line is rarely crossed. There is still no significant black-white intermarriage in the United States. Black and white together? No, we are still living separate lives -- and at the moment that separatism may be getting worse rather than better.
It can be argued, too, that even if such things are true, it is better not to speak of them. The 37th president, Richard Nixon, once said to me that he considered the more courteous dialogue of whites about blacks to be an American triumph. After all, he said, you can't control what people think or feel, only how they behave in public.
I agreed, but I am no longer so sure. The politeness of civil-rights dialogue and other politics has worn so thin that you can see through it. Perhaps it is time for us to talk about and do something about what is really going on racially in the United States right now -- about fear and hatred, and the unresolved questions and feelings of years of lying to ourselves in public.