African Americans occupy a strange social niche. They are at once profoundly alienated from the mainstream of American society and somewhere near to the heart of it, inasmuch as black culture is one of the great wellsprings of American culture. Though the Main Line WASPs are still out there in the country clubs and on the charity-ball circuit, in American popular culture — music, television, film, sports, fashion, and such highbrow pursuits as literature and drama — black America, currently just 12.6 percent of the population, punches above its weight. But African Americans are profoundly overrepresented in the prison population, in the murder-victim population, and in the poor population, as well.

Until quite recently, I thought it was remarkable that black Americans took such a deeply conspiratorial view of politics and public affairs: Louis Farrakhan and his insane racial just-so stories, the wider anti-Semitic paranoia, the familiar myths about the CIA bringing crack and HIV to black neighborhoods for nefarious purposes. Even among African Americans who do not buy any of those fanciful tales entirely, there is a sense that, however wrong they may be in the details, Farrakhan et al. speak to a deeper and more subtle truth. This can produce some perverse outcomes: Some years ago, the Philadelphia Daily News ran a cover including the police mugshot of every fugitive currently wanted by the local police in a homicide case. The faces were all black and brown, not because the editors had excluded the white fugitives from the cover but because there were none.