As I read the much-ballyhooed debate between the writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait about race in America, followed by Coates’ magisterial case for reparations to African-Americans, I couldn’t help recalling my own observation to The Atlantic in 1997, that “it’s difficult to say anything about race that hasn’t been said before; difficult to say anything that isn’t at least half true; and still more difficult to mean whatever one does say amid the fog of half-truths and euphemisms enveloping the subject.”

At that time, the black writer Stanley Crouch had proclaimed, “Race is Over,” meaning not that it doesn’t still matter in employment, housing, schooling, and policing but that it no longer drives public discourse and no longer should. Crouch’s statement was certainly an important half-truth, reinforced then and now as rising immigration and intermarriage make millions of Americans’ experiences of race more fluid and ecumenical than ever before.

Yet, white racism is a permanent, indestructible, and defining feature of American society, wrote the late black law professor Derrick Bell at about the same time, and it’s hard not to consider him half-right, too, because racism, if not quite permanent and indestructible, remains persistent and highly destructive, especially for millions of African-Americans.

Having participated in this debate for more than 25 years with The Closest of Strangers, Liberal Racism, and in essays, columns, posts — most recently in a review (pdf) of Randall Kennedy’s The Persistence of the Color Line and an essay on the murder of Trayvon Martin– I won’t re-enter it now by discussing Coates’ or Chait’s arguments or reprising my own view that if America has a manifest destiny today, it’s to transcend race as we’ve known it. But I do want to note a few insights along those lines that have only been reinforced, sometimes disturbingly, by recent events.

First, American racial discourse has been turned upside down in arresting ways since the mid-1990s, and not only by immigration and intermarriage. Twenty years ago, many people were enraged but also exhausted by interracial murder and rape cases: recall subway gunman Bernhard Goetz, the Howard Beach and Bensonhurst murders, the Crown Heights riots, the rape and near murder of the Central Park jogger, Tawana Brawley’s claim that she’d been raped, the Long Island Rail Road massacre, the Washington, DC drive-by snipers, O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, and police officers’ beating of Rodney King and the riots in Los Angeles following the acquittals.

Such cases reinforced many whites’ perceptions of black criminality even when it was whites who’d assaulted blacks, supposedly in reaction to rising black violence. But even as a new mass-incarceration industry pens up and/or probates millions of black men, whites who may think themselves safer are finding themselves trapped in open-air shooting galleries for white mass murderers in Columbine, Phoenix, Aurora, Little Rock, Newtown, Santa Barbara, and more.

Although black violence has always been mostly black-on-black, its magnitude could always be blamed credibly, even if not always wisely, on racism. Not so the new tide of white-on-white mass murders, which gives a bitterly ironic twist to Stanley Crouch’s claim that “race is over.” It forces us to think about what, besides racism, is driving the unwinding of American civil society.

Second, I’ve tried to prompt such thinking by showing how obsessing about race, even in the name of justice, can distract us from riptides that are swifter and deeper than racism itself. Today, no one can deny that American civil society is dissolving in gun violence, sexual assault, road rage, gladiatorial spectacles in sports, and other disgraces driven in no small part by predatory elites in churches, Congress, and news organizations, as well as on Wall Street but also, ultimately, by divisions in the human heart that antedate the current configurations of power.

While racism and its black dysfunctions remain ubiquitous and routine, it’s long past time we heeded Martin Luther King, Jr.’s warning that racism is inextricable from deeper dysfunctions in a regime of casino-like financing and consumer bamboozling that more professors and editors must find the capacity and the will to interrogate instead of uphold, even if that means resisting university administrations and publishers who employ them.

Even though today’s capitalism is unquestionably the big accelerant of our unwinding, I don’t believe that the capacity and will to replace it can be found in an ideology that begins and ends in “anti-capitalism”. A renewal of the liberal education and citizen-leadership training that were developed in the old American colleges at their best might help – in truth, I consider it imperative — but such efforts are all-too easily compromised by their own self-marketing. That’s a longer argument for another occasion, but see my review of William Deresiewicz’s arm-waving jeremiad Excellent Sheep, just published in Bookforum.

Third, do people really want race to be “over”? When other modes of belonging thin out, ethno-racial identities become more attractive than they should be in a liberal society. Racial identity may be only a social construct imposed upon people of certain colors and cultures, but for anyone subjected to it, it can become all-defining, the more so if tempered by communal lore and love, and soon it binds everyone it touches. The danger is that the defensive side of racial identity— which insists, “I am excluded, therefore I am”—will incline its bearers to impose past experiences on new possibilities in ways that diminish them.

This danger isn’t apparent to anyone in danger from racism itself. And who’s to decide when that danger has lifted enough to permit other forms of self-discovery and social action?

My answer is that if every ethno-racial group – Jewish, African-American, and the rest – needs full-time guardians (such as Ta-Nehesi Coates and Jonathan Chait?) who spot every hint of a threat and are skilled at mobilizing responses, every group also needs members (also like Ta-Nehesi Coates and Jonathan Chait?) who move more easily in and out of their group’s fortress, living almost deliberately as if its big battles have already been won, and who are winning those battles themselves in the small increments of understanding and respect that come with normal social interaction across group lines.

Normal interaction can pose dangers to group solidarity. Racial, ethnic, and religious groups have developed within relationships of domination and subordination, and they have often been nourished on mutual suspicion. As more young Americans grow up within common bonds that link them across old boundaries, group stalwarts will feel disoriented, even bereft, of strong moorings – and rightly so, if the new common bonds are vapid and even decadent, as America’s too often are.

Where, then, do we go to find the mythic wellsprings human beings seem to need to give themselves grounding? The question brings fresh urgency to a new prospect in the human journey – the need for a universal culture. American has been in the vanguard of that journey almost despite itself at times. For better, on balance, than for worse, millions of us are generations removed from any easily recoverable traditional religious, ethnic, or racial identity. We have no choice but to keep faith with one another in ways earlier generations barely imagined. That is our new frontier and the only conceivable response to riptides that are running deeper and more dangerously than racism itself.

Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism.