Rational discussions of racial and ethnic issues are rare. But common sense by people who know what they are talking about will never create as much excitement in the media as emotional rhetoric by people who don't.

Undoubtedly, far more people have heard the claim that Hispanic Americans are falling behind economically than have read Linda Chavez's thoughtful and informed analysis of this contention in the Nov. 19 issue of New Republic magazine.Chavez says that Mexican Americans - the largest of the Hispanic groups - are still immigrating into the United States. Mexican American males who were born in this country earn far higher pay than those who have arrived from Mexico. Statistically, immigrants bring down the group average - but that does not mean that anybody is falling behind economically.

U.S.-born Mexican Americans are far more likely to have finished high school than the newcomers are.

Chavez says, "Mexican American high school graduates earn 90 percent of what non-Hispanic white graduates do; those with one or two years of college earn 97 percent of what similarly educated non-Hispanics earn."

Later generations may well wipe out those last few percentage points of income difference and surpass the national average. There is nothing mysterious about this pattern, which has been common among other immigrant groups as well.

What is different today, compared to the heyday of European immigration, is that there are now innumerable organizations claiming victim status - and seeking government money. Black, Hispanic and other organizations have their own agendas, which may do nothing to advance the groups for whom they claim to speak and can even be counterproductive.

Both the tongs in China and the Mafia in Sicily began as organizations defending the people from oppression.

Over the years, they transformed into something very different. Most racial and ethnic organizations in the United States have not gone that far.

Chavez's essay focuses on the growing split between black and Hispanic organizations.

It is possible to maintain such coalitions when everyone is seeking equal rights but not when seeking special preferences. In countries around the world, special preferences have turned group against group.

Bloody riots have been raging in India this year over preferential policies. In Nigeria back in the 1960s and in Sri Lanka today, such bloodletting has escalated into civil war.

The tragic irony is that preferential policies seldom benefit the poor, but rather the elites who promote them.

Regardless of what claims are made against the larger society, no one is likely to give any group more than a fraction of what they can earn for themselves.

Unfortunately, it is not just minority activists who push the vision of victimhood. All sorts of white, middle-class people also get into the act.

For example, those for whom indignation is a way of life have recently been denouncing American society because of high infant mortality rates in some minority groups. Chavez, however, points out that infant mortality rates among Mexican Americans is lower than it is among either whites or blacks - even when the Mexican Americans receive little or no prenatal care.

It may be that no one in the media, in politics or in group activist organizations will take the slightest interest in how Mexican Americans achieve low infant mortality rates.

That is because organized noisemakers are far less interested in infant mortality than in getting government money for their social programs.

For those who do have some genuine interest in the well-being of less fortunate people, Chavez's essay is a real contribution toward a new understanding.