WASHINGTON — In this week of debate over civil rights and quotas, we should ask a potentially ominous question: Is America splitting apart?
Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s ''The Disuniting of America'' expresses the fear in muscular language. He says that ''unscrupulous hucksters whose claim to speak for minorities is thoughtlessly accepted by the media'' could push America into a ''quarrelsome spatter of enclaves, ghettoes and tribes'' that exalt ''cultural and linguistic apartheid.''
Mr. Schlesinger's concerns are shared by both liberals and conservatives. There are indeed enough signs to cause apprehension:
* The congressional debate has revealed the ugly practice of ''race-norming,'' where test scores for hiring are massaged to yield quotas.
* Some Latinos preach bilingualism.
* Cynical Republicans, allegedly anti-quota, are joining minorities encourage congressional redistricting to codify the idea that only blacks and Hispanics will win certain seats -- with whites most likely to capture the rest.
* Campus life smacks of pungent separatism. Dinesh D'Souza's ''Illiberal Education'' (The Free Press) cogently documents the struggles about proportional admissions, curriculum changes trashing Western culture and the glorification of self-segregation all serving a ''politically correct'' ideology that boasts of Americans not as individuals, but as centrifugal groups.
The argument is tense, and useful, but only if understood for what it is: a highlighting of a potential threat to long-term American well-being. ''Potential'' -- no more than that.
For powerful forces are pulling Americans together. Blacks, by the millions, are moving to suburbs, joining the American mainstream. Although blacks are still less likely to live there than whites, the 1970-90 black suburban growth rate went up three times faster than the white rate. Not unrelated, blacks have moved into better jobs, where they now work alongside whites.
What about black ''self-segregation'' on campus? Little noted, in the last generation black high school dropout rates went down by almost half, while the rate of blacks going to college went up by half.
One reason there was little ethnic or racial tension on American campuses in earlier times was that there were so few minorities around. There weren't many Hispanics or Asians in America, let alone in college. Of the few blacks in college, many of those were in all-black schools, separated. Now Americans of every background are on the same campuses. And we are told it isn't working perfectly.
Perhaps not. But while those ''unscrupulous hucksters'' are saying ''separate,'' large numbers of young Americans are doing something different: marrying each other. European-descended Catholics, Protestants and Jews now routinely intermarry -- not the case a few decades ago. Intermarriage rates of Asian-Americans and Hispanics have doubled (to about one in three). The black rate is very low, but climbing rapidly.
Self-appointed Chicano spokespersons preach bilingualism, but recent data show Latinos assimilating English more rapidly than earlier immigrants. Latino mothers tell their kids to learn English if they want to make something of themselves.
It hardly needs saying. Those kids, along with the rest of America, watch Magic and Michael on English-language television. They will see the same summer movies, listen to the same rock music, watch the same Super Bowl. It's a big stretch to believe that while the English language and American pop culture are sweeping the world, they will diminish here.
Perhaps most encouraging are American attitudes toward legal separatism. Americans hate it. The ''politically correct'' doctrine went into retreat the moment it was widely exposed.
And, for political purposes, the new civil-rights quota bill prominently forbids quotas, even while probably yielding them. Because Americans hate proportionalism, the proposal will not become law, and Democrats will suffer for having toyed with it.
''E pluribus unum'' is still on our coins, and still on our minds.
Ben Wattenberg, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is author of ''The First Universal Nation.''