WASHINGTON — RACIAL PURITY is a silly topic, partly because there's no such thing. We've all been blended, and we almost surely had a common origin. Still there's something about the subject that makes people nervous.
Minority populations grew twice as fast during the '80s as in the '70s, according to the U.S. Census. Nearly one in four Americans now has African, Asian, Hispanic or American Indian ancestry. Despite the fact we are a nation of immigrants, many whites find this disquieting.
Each new wave of newcomers has been resented by those who got here ahead of it. The Irish, Italians and East Europeans all faced discrimination and racial slurs. But their assimilation was a piece of cake contrasted with what Americans of different skin hues have to go through.
The largest "nonwhite" group, Americans of African descent, deals with additional handicaps handed down from a slavery that gave them little education, gut-grinding poverty and hope-deadening degradation.
The proudest achievement this country has made in my lifetime, by my standards, is its progress in moving blacks toward full membership in society. There's a painful lot still undone, but the improvement from the segregated, brutally discriminatory culture in which I grew up in the Deep South has been breathtaking.
This all happened after World War II, rearranging a society that had been in concrete, except for the end of slavery, for two centuries.
Unfortunately, to a lot of citizens -- not all of them racist -- that's enough. As they see it, breaking down legal barriers between the races wiped out the past. Any effort to compensate for previous crippling strikes them as unfair.
Republicans have been cashing in on such resentments since Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy" of 1968. They will make it an issue again in 1992, which is why President Bush once more will veto the civil rights bill. Any preference for blacks turns off many middle-class whites, who feel they are penalized when blacks are rewarded.
The GOP hierarchy is delighted to have such a wedge between blacks and middle-class whites, who on economic terms would be natural allies against the country club set for whom Republicans labor.
Most of these whites are convinced they're carrying a tax burden keep free-riding blacks on welfare. Such myths, when reinforced with racial stereotypes, are hard to bury.
Useful as civil rights laws have been, it may be time to ease off (they can only accomplish so much anyway) and give priority to raising the floor under the poor of all races on the theory that a nation can be no stronger than its weakest links. A good start would be Sen. Daniel Moynihan's plan for lowering the Social Security tax.
There are lots of other racial problems involving injustices to Asiatics, Hispanics and even the native Americans who were here first. But if we can make progress on the black-white issue, the others should be easier.
If the melting pot doesn't work, if diversity isn't strength, if the whole isn't greater than the sum of its parts, then America was founded on a false notion. The Japanese, who worship ethnic purity, believe that.
Fortunately, we've had a success run of 200 years to prove our point. What's left is to live by it.
Jim Fain is a columnist for Cox News Service.