LET US begin today with the fact that being called a honky is not in the same league as being called a nigger.
And therein lies one explanation of why Bill Clinton generated considerable heat, but no light, when he publicly decried the anti-white comments of a woman who thinks with her mouth by the name of Sister Souljah.
This is not a meditation on the sister, who has already gotten more attention than her talents as a rap artist or a social commentator merit.
Nor is this a disquisition on the board game known as national politics and whether Governor Clinton wanted to "dis" the Rev. Jesse Jackson, or distance himself from him. (Although either, it seems to me, could have been covered adequately by a simple No when asked to speak.)
This is about race, the thing today that dare not speak its name.
We not only lack the words. We lack the knowledge.
The Chicago bureau chief of the New York Times, Isabel Wilkerson, last week made this vivid by drawing word pictures of two neighboring communities. The dreams and aspirations of the people are much the same. But Roseland is black, Mount Greenwood white, as though Jim Crow had never died.
One white woman said her family had to eat hamburger while the blacks bought steaks with their food stamps. She'd never actually seen anyone do this, you understand, but she knew that it was so.
The story observed: "The paradox, interviews show, is that black people were fearful because much of their contact with white people was negative; whites were fearful because they had little or no contact."
Into the fray in a nation so divided steps Mr. Clinton, sounding the white-guy clarion call, that hatred is as bad when it goes black to white as when it goes white to black. All things being equal, this is true.
Only all things aren't equal. Hatred by the powerful, the majority, has a different weight -- and often very different effects -- than hatred by the powerless, the minority. Reverse racism is like reverse discrimination: How much power does it really have in our overwhelmingly white world?
Mr. Clinton brought the Uzi of power and position to bear on someone with a dart gun full of poison. Those little suckers sure sting. But it's clear who's better armed. It's especially clear when the man should be carrying a lamp instead, looking to illuminate.
All of us rushed right in to say that Bill Clinton was right, right, right, no doubt about it. And there was no doubt that Sister Souljah's words have been unconscionable. But as any debater can tell you, right may give you a lovely puffed-up feeling, but sometimes it does not advance the argument.
Sen. Bill Bradley took on this most difficult of issues in a speech in March. And he didn't do it with bromides, and he didn't do it because he was running for something, much as people wish he was. He talked about white fear of black criminality, he talked about the disintegration of the black family, he talked about misunderstanding and ill will on all sides, Republican and Democrat, white and black alike.
He told us we were all dependent on one another, and that if we do not stand united we will surely fall. Mr. Bradley even said some of the things that Mr. Clinton was trying to say, talking about the "threats and bombast" of some black leaders. But he didn't single them out for blame. He asked us all to examine our consciences. He cast light.
This other has been pure heat. Sister Souljah got her 15 minutes of fame. Jesse Jackson got to play his habitual game of Super Mario Brothers with the Democratic powers-that-be.
And Bill Clinton got to shout across from the white side of the racial divide that black folks can be racist, too. There are those who say he was pandering. If he prospers with the support of voters who believe that the key to racial problems in this country is blacks killing whites, or talking about killing whites, he will be little better than the occupant of the White House.
Our problem is not the venomous words of a rap artist -- it is silences so huge we are drowning in them. Mr. Bradley quoted Stephen Vincent Benet on the conundrum of America:
All of these you are/And each is partly you/And none of them is false/And none is wholly true.
Alas, it doesn't make for sound bites.
Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.