An incident from my days as a college professor and administrator came to mind recently when I heard a colleague make the comment that “A rational dialogue on race is not yet possible in America.” The incident that came to mind occurred when several years ago when I chaired an accreditation team for college in the Southeast. The college to be accredited (or not) had transitioned from offering only associate degrees to also offering a select few bachelors degrees. This particular college had a high minority population in its student body. It also had a higher than normal dropout rate that was troubling.

In preparation for the accreditation team’s arrival on campus, the college’s president had asked his staff to undertake a study of the dropout problem to determine its source. The study attempted to identify common characteristics among the students who failed to complete their degrees. The idea behind the study was simple: If the college could identify the problems that were causing so many students drop out, maybe it could fix the problems and increase its graduation rate. Unfortunately, the recurring characteristic that kept cropping up among dropouts was race. Specifically, black males were dropping out of college at an alarming rate compared with the overall student body.

I will never forget what the college president told me when I asked if he had developed a plan for improving the situation. He said: “Are you kidding? I can’t even talk about the results of this study much less try to do anything about them. If the dropout rate of black males gets out, my days as a college president are over.” It turned out that this college president was afraid to even engage in a rationale dialogue on race. In fact, he told me frankly that when it came to the subject of race, he considered the term “rationale dialogue” an oxymoron.

From an accreditation perspective, I was not happy with this college president’s explanation. But I had to admit that I understood his fear and frustration. Race is still a volatile subject in America made all the more volatile, not to mention confusing, because race is not even about skin color any more—it’s about attitude. People who do not subscribe to the concepts of entitlement, class envy, and social justice are now labeled racists regardless of their race. This is why conservative black Americans can be labeled racists and be treated as if they belong to the Ku Klux Klan.

In his book, Ten Things You Can’t Say in America, Larry Elder—a black conservative who has been subjected to vicious diatribes by people of his own race—writes about how vice-president Al Gore’s campaign manager in his presidential contest against George W. Bush said that the Democrats must defeat the “white boys.” Then she said, “White boys has nothing to do with gender or race, it’s an attitude.” Defining blackness as an attitude rather than a race has led to an ironic reversal of roles. We now have liberal white Americans telling conservative black Americans they are not “black enough” or that they don’t understand what it means to grow up black in America.

Elder uses the example of Colin Powell—not exactly Mr. Conservative—to demonstrate how absurd this concept of blackness-as-an-attitude can become. He writes: “Powell, mind you, supports affirmative action, favors gun control legislation,…and is pro-choice.” Yet Powell is still vilified as a traitor by the blackness-as-an-attitude crowd because he is registered as a Republican.

My colleague was right. At this point in America’s history, a rationale dialogue on race is still not possible. When will it be possible? When and only when discussions of race are replaced by discussions of merit. In a meritorious society, people succeed or fail on their own individual merits, not on the basis of race. In a meritorious society, decisions are made on the basis of merit, not race. Only when Americans relate to each other on the basis of merit rather than race will race cease to be the single-most divisive issue in American society.