When President Clinton went to San Diego early this summer and announced a "great and unprecedented conversation about race," it was no secret that he hoped to address historians as much as the graduating college seniors seated before him. For months, Clinton had searched for a defining crusade to mark his presidency. He settled on America's most agonizing and enduring dilemma, and it was a good choice. Although many Americans have stopped rooting for this president, most of us would like him to succeed on this issue. But we're deeply skeptical. A survey taken immediately following Clinton's speech showed that almost 60 percent of Americans believe racial problems are beyond the president's control.

Why the pessimism? One trouble is that, in some sense, we converse about race enough already. But we converse dishonestly, or at least disingenuously. There is a chasm between our public and private discussions of race, between the way we talk about other people when we are in classrooms and how we talk about them in our living rooms. In public, most Americans praise the benefits of a diverse and multicultural society. But when the doors are closed, the same Americans retreat into their own ethnic and racial tribes and voice deeper and darker emotions: resentment and guilt, rage and fear.

Though American society is more diverse than ever before, a charged division persists: the line between blacks and whites. Both blacks and whites want racial comity and both believe racial discrimination still exists in America. But when the discussion turns to specific causes and solutions, the consensus fractures. Here's one reason: affirmative action.

Of course, affirmative action didn't cause America's fundamental racial problems -- slavery and segregation did. But affirmative action has eroded liberals' moral credibility as reformers and driven away many natural allies. So progressives need to reassess their commitment to affirmative action and find better alternatives that can re-establish racial healing as a national priority.

It seems safe -- if not completely comforting -- to say that affirmative action's political defeat is imminent. Blacks and whites have irreconcilable differences on this issue. Only 17 percent of whites believe blacks and other minorities should receive preferences in admissions to college. A majority of blacks think the opposite. According to the most recent Gallup poll, almost 60 percent of African-Americans believe the government should make every effort to improve conditions of blacks and other minorities. Only 34 percent of white Americans agree.

Like welfare reform, the dissolution of affirmative action without the proposition of real alternatives could prove shamefully destructive. Even during its dismantling, affirmative action has allowed us to talk about race euphemistically: Both its supporters and detractors could appeal to principle, each claiming to be the champions of equality. This let everyone off the hook. To date, we have avoided the emotional rawness that lies below the surface of racial civility.

Beneath their professed tolerance, many white Americans suspect that the black community carries a defective pathology that no amount of government programs or "conversation" can cure. Whites wonder why blacks continue to underachieve in comparison to other ethnic and immigrant groups, particularly Asian-Americans. And whites fear, in times of high tension, that blacks will act as a racially united and irrational mob. The first O.J. Simpson verdict horrified so many whites because it seemed to flout the mores of law and reason, in favor of some controlling racial solidarity. That terrified whites, many of whom see themselves as potential victims of that mob.

Blacks, on the other hand, perceive white America as a persistent, quiet mob. When an all-white jury in a white enclave, Simi Valley, California, acquitted Rodney King's assailants in 1992, many blacks (and not only those in the hoods of South Central Los Angeles) saw the triumph of a self-protecting tribe that ignores documented brutality. Many blacks sympathize with claims that the CIA introduced crack cocaine into inner cities, or with the hateful cant of Louis Farrakhan, because they believe that white America harbors a primal desire to close ranks in order to preserve its power.

Certainly the desire to exploit "the other" is an old American tradition. Economic conservatives have long treated America's ethnic groups as laborers who could be bought for cheap and then integrated when an even more alien labor force was allowed in. Although American liberals derided this cold calculation, they also relied heavily upon a certain economic logic. Their greatest victories in the period following the New Deal and ending with the Vietnam War came about largely because, for three decades, the bounties of the American economy seemed limitless. The left did not anticipate that America's taste for serious social reform would contract when resources did. Instead, much of the left embraced a politics of racial consumerism. It assumed that in an infinitely prosperous America, every group and subgroup was entitled to its own share of the riches. Support for affirmative action became a virtual mantra for liberals, even though it contradicted a widely held American belief that no racial or ethnic group deserved a mandated advantage in the marketplace, and even though the central beneficiaries -- middle-class blacks -- commanded a limited political base.

When the sustainability of American growth came into question, any racial unity that the left had built fractured into battles over turf and money. One casualty is the withering of affirmative action. Another is the very notion that America can become an integrated, harmonious whole. Even the NAACP reconsidered its commitment to integration. Despite the recent prosperity that is fattening federal coffers, most Americans no longer believe that government incentives to ease racial tensions will succeed.

This alarming loss of faith is the reason why Mother Jones is devoting so much of this issue to rethinking race. The right, by successfully dismantling affirmative action, has seized the initiative on race in America. But progressives can recover it. First we need to admit that affirmative action has failed as a long-term political strategy. In its place, the left should call the bluff of affirmative action's opponents, by crafting a more pragmatic strategy that emphasizes basic solutions to racial injustice -- such as making superior public education accessible to all students. We can insist, as places such as Boston Latin School have strived to do, that the opportunity to receive a high-quality public education is a right owed to all American children, of every race, religion, and economic background.

Affirmative action's demise means liberals must reshape their political alliances. An agenda that sheds race- and identity-based politics in favor of shared, communal goals could bring many citizens -- whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians -- who have deserted the left over affirmative action back into a progressive, transracial coalition. Such a coalition could call for renewed public investment as long as individual responsibility remains at the core.

Some conservatives might join such a coalition if its values were uncompromising. Visionary progressives should realize that the right potentially has more than an economic interest in seeing race relations improved. Contemporary American conservatism's stated ideal is to redress the country's moral failings. Americans in the next century could find, as did 19th-century abolitionists and 20th-century civil rights leaders, that race problems cannot be solved solely through economics. Racial inequity is a moral, emotional, and spiritual problem shared by blacks and whites. On a fundamental level, inequality of opportunity should signify immorality -- particularly to religious fundamentalists. All honest conservatives could be helped to see the resolution of America's racial problems as the test of their faith.

For progressives, the end of affirmative action presents a critical moment. The progressive philosophy is essentially optimistic: A democratic society's enduring attribute should be its capacity for self-improvement. The death of affirmative action need not be a dispiriting event. Our history teaches that the nation's greatest periods of renewal came out of crisis. Truly visionary Americans will not wait for the president's conversation on race. They will seize the moment for themselves now.