If you live in Washington, work in the media or in politics, you quickly learn the divisions of left and right, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican. It's part of the diet, every working day.
You learn the categories to assign to every think tank, each member of Congress, each justice of the Supreme Court, all in relation to the political polarities. You learn to see through the layers of punditry to get to the rocky bottom of every argument. You're rarely surprised by how editorials come down on the bread and butter issues of the economy, war, peace and foreign policy.
Since consensus requires compromise, only the naïve start in the moderate middle. Ideologues overstate their cases to get movement started. Fair enough, when you understand why. There's no shortage of problems, dilemmas and enigmas to argue about.
But sometimes the wise men (and women) see through the glass darkly, missing a puzzle that's right in front of us, one that requires new ways for looking at things, a fresh focus. That's particularly difficult if it touches on the great untouchable, the issue of race.
Pat Moynihan, a young assistant secretary of labor in the Johnson administration, looked at the black family in 1965, and saw a problem for single-parent, female-headed families. He saw a problem for the larger society as well, and tried to start a conversation about it. He was savagely attacked, not only by black civil-rights advocates but by white liberals, too. It was a not a fit subject for discussion, and Welfare reform, which would turn some things around, was years in the future.
But when Welfare reform finally arrived, more black women - many of them single mothers - would get real jobs. Teenage pregnancies declined. But there's an unforeseen consequence: an alarming gender gap has emerged between single black working women and black men.
When the economy expanded during the last decade, work experience for black men did not expand. "In 2000, young black men were 23 to 25 points lower than white and Hispanic men in rates of employment," write Paul Offner and Harry Holzer, social scientists at the Brookings Institution. They can't explain whether this was caused by black women taking jobs that might have otherwise gone to black men, or whether black men feel less pressure now that more black women are entering the work force.
Whatever the reason, it has made the competition to land successful black men fierce. With a large number of black men in prison, with poor job prospects when they get out, the gap between black men and black women is likely to grow. According to the Justice Policy Institute, 791,600 young black men over the age of 17 languished in prison by the year 2000. Only one in every three black children will grow up in a two-parent family. The social scientists call the absent out-of-work, out-of-touch fathers the "forgotten men." There's an education gap as well. Twice as many black women as black men earn bachelor's degrees.
Harry Belafonte doesn't help when he sneers at Secretary of State Colin Powell as a "house slave," depicting the spectacular Powell success as demeaning. Worse, men who know better, such as Rep. John Conyers of Michigan publicly agreed with the movie star. Rep. Charles Rangel of New York defended Mr. Powell while putting him down: "Ninety percent of the black community wish that Harry Belafonte would have felt it and not said it."
This gender gap will only get worse. Women black and white are reluctant to "marry down," and there aren't enough prospective husbands to choose from among them. A black women's rage, documented by black women, at black men who marry white women probably has as much to do with economic opportunities as race.
The angry arguments over affirmative action at the University of Michigan Law School ignores this dilemma. Society can't solve it by awarding black men "20 points." Neither liberal nor conservative, black nor white, seek a public discussion of this dilemma. It's a minefield that no one can easily navigate.
Katherine Boo, writing in Atlantic magazine, argues that the problem may be transitional and "a case can be made for policy passivity." That sounds like Pat Moynihan's prescription four decades ago for "benign neglect" toward the black family - that it was something for blacks, and time, to work out. More job training programs might help, but as Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson observes, a job does not necessarily make a black man more likely to marry. (A man's a man, for all that; you could ask a lot of disappointed white women.)
The black gender gap is a dilemma that suggests no solutions. But it should be acknowledged and confronted. Are we willing to do that?