This could be the beginning of a beautiful affair - with the USA

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THERE aren't many finer places to be in the world on a warm, not yet sultry summer's day than Camden Yards in Baltimore. It's where the Orioles, the town's baseball team play - not very well lately, but the stadium is pleasant, open and friendly, a ball game is a great way to while away a Sunday, the beer is cold and the hot dogs warm, so it doesn't really matter.

This must be one of the best times and places in the world to be alive. Ever. America is thriving, with the lowest unemployment for nearly thirty years, low inflation and reasonable growth. Politically, this country is stable and (whatever you think about the Clintons) reasonably well governed. There are no wars going on with American lives at stake. There is a sheen on the surface of this nation, sleek and glossy.

I arrived in Washington three week ago to take up a position as one of the Independent's correspondents in America. The first thing I noticed is that political life has changed a lot in the ten years I have been visiting here. Most of the big issues ten years ago have now faded away, rendering most of my background knowledge totally useless. The Cold War? We can toss out the files on throw-weights and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement. The budget deficit? Start thinking about a surplus.

In general, politics matters less. The main stories while I've been here have been Seinfeld and Sinatra, both subject to the kind of blanket coverage that used to be merited only by the White House, and the schoolyards shootings in Oregon. The Contras and Star Wars are history, replaced by Viagra and Bill Gates.

For a Briton, America excites at the best of times a mixed response: admiration and respect, of course, but also cynicism, irritation, and cultural condescension. All of this - positive and negative - is justified at one point or another by a nation so vast and so complex, of course. But it's all magnified when - as now - the country is basking a warm glow of relaxed prosperity.

How rich can one nation be? How did they get this to happen, and how do we copy it? How do I get more of this? How long can I stay here? But also: don't these people realise there's a world out there, we ask? How complacent can a country get? And, inevitably: what about the people who don't get to sit at the top table?

Of course, there is much to criticise. In fact my predecessor John Carlin closed his tenancy with a harsh but brilliant tirade in the Independent on Sunday. I haven't been here long enough to feel his disillusionment, although I recognise that the need to criticise is great in a country that sometimes takes everything for granted.

The thing that has always upset me most about America is the inequality of it all, not just financially, but in terms of social influence and political presence. To do well here is to transcend the hopes and dreams of most of humanity for most of its history. To do badly is to be doubly cursed: to fail, and to fail in what is self-consciously the land of opportunity.

Of course, there is one group of people in America who always seem to be on the wrong end of the deal. As we watched the Orioles get thoroughly trashed, my friend scanned the audience. "One thing you really notice," he said. "Where are the brothers?"

Because there aren't too many black faces at a baseball game. A few on the field, of course, and some serving at the stands selling merchandise or beer, and some outside with shopping trollies full of rubbish, asking for just a little small change. But in the crowd? Not so many.

Most are white, in the dress uniform of white America at play. "Chuck", as some black Americans call them; or rather us, because I'm white and undistinguishable from the rest in my blue button-down Oxford shirt, chinos and loafers. The first time I got called Chuck, in a sneering voice by two men on the street, I looked around for a few seconds before I realised: that's me, too.

Race is the question that has preoccupied America for so long, so heavily, and there is no sign of a solution. I had thought that, with all this money around, with so much new experience since the bad old Eighties, and with the Democrats back in power, that maybe this would have moved on; but it hasn't.

Some things change, of course. Crime - predominantly black crime, directed against black people - is less of a feature of Washington life than ten years ago, at the height of the crack epidemic. There are no stories of gun fights fought with automatic weapons, no tales of rocket launchers taking out miscreant dealers fifteen blocks from the White House.

I think that I shall never see a nation as wealthy and powerful as this, as untroubled and unthinkingly prosperous. The part of me that empathises with America rejoices in this, in the ability of this nation with so much that is good to find new ways every day of creating wealth and opportunity. Like many people of my generation, I look on it as a nation that, despite everything, holds out a hope for humanity when it is acting nobly and well.

But my European, slightly gloomy side says: maybe this is as good as it gets. And if it is, and if this is the best that the relationship between black and white America can ever be, then where does America go from here?

Black politicians, spokesmen, cultural icons and community leaders have been through so many hoops in the last hundred years in their effort to improve the lot of their community that it's hard to think of any other untrodden path. Affirmative action, street action, direct action, neo-conservatism, liberalism, socialism, nationalism, and every thing else have helped - because this isn't a story with only bad news - but they have still come to this: that the only black face I see at Freshfields, the super-chic organic grocery store in the north-west suburbs of Washington, is at the till. Maybe they have better things to waste their money on than sixty different brands of herbal tea; the dreary slums of Anacostia, Washington's black quarter, make me think otherwise.

This isn't just the usual kneejerk Brit-in-America moan. This nation makes the most extraordinary claims for itself, sets the highest goals and standards, and that is something I respect, even as I scowl when it fails to cross the bar. I hope for better, and in many ways I see it.

In some respects, this is America's second golden age, a new 1950s, but without the duck-and-cover nuclear paranoia. I have enough respect and admiration for America as a society to believe that something can grow out of this, that it can continue down the path of social healing and regeneration that it has tentatively drawn out over the last thirty years. As good as it gets? I hope not; I hope there is better to come.