IN A RECENT sampling of public opinion, 63 percent of callers to The Evening Sun Sundial said that race relations in Baltimore are deteriorating.
Ugly racial incidents here are indeed increasing. As a result of the deepening recession and growing desperation, some Baltimoreans are ripe for exploitation by extremist groups. Skinheads recently tried to foment trouble in Hampden, distributing circulars calling for it to become a "nigger-free zone." David Duke is counting on kindred spirits.
Recent incidents reported to the Baltimore Police Department include numerous racial assaults, racial and religious insults, physical intimidation and distribution of hate literature.
Synagogues have been maliciously defaced with swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti. Homes, churches, schools and other buildings have been savagely vandalized. Some violence against individuals is not reported because of fear of reprisal.
Last year, a young black man walking on Eastern Avenue with a white woman was brutally attacked by white youths. Similar violence has been erupting in scattered volcanoes across the country, reminding us of the fiery mass that is out of sight, under the mostly serene surface.
Violence against blacks and Jews has been promoted for many decades by the United Klans of America, with a membership of about 26,000. Three of its members pleaded guilty recently to shooting into a house occupied by two racially mixed couples; 10 were convicted and sentenced to prison terms.
In 1987, two Klan members from Mobile, Ala., were convicted of the lynching of a black teen-ager, Michael Donald. Six others involved in the slaying were defendants in a successful civil suit against United Klans of America, which resulted in a heavy fine and transfer of the deed to its headquarters building to the victim's mother. Also in 1987, the Klan was accused of involvement in the killing of Alan Berg, a Denver radio talk-show host.
The membership of all the national hate organizations probably would not fill Memorial Stadium. But they and their millions of sympathizers are a clear and present danger.
Can anything be done to quell the fires?
An example of an effective, positive, persistent campaign to foster racial harmony and justice is the Congregations Pairing and Caring program of Baltimore Clergy and Laity Concerned (CALC). CALC has organized churches, synagogues, temples and mosques into a successful racial justice program working through specially paired congregations and their social action and youth committees. It is the only group focused on mobilizing the power of the pulpit against racism and violence.
Recently, under its direction, hundreds of Baltimoreans -- black and white, youths and adults, inner-city and suburban, representing varied faiths and denominations -- participated in a midtown walk against hunger in Africa. The effort brought together many who had been drifting apart. It raised hope, understanding and $9,000, which John Springer, the CALC director, divided among four African relief organizations.
High school youth and adult advisers from the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Temple Emanuel and other Jewish congregations have paired with NAACP youth councils in Holy Covenant Episcopal, Harlem Park Baptist and New Shiloh Baptist churches to sponsor celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday and to share an interfaith Passover Seder, conducted by rabbis at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.
"We see our job as lighting candles instead of cursing the darkness," said Springer. "Bowling and skating parties, picnics, potluck dinners, retreats, lectures, Thanksgiving worship, athletic events, fund-raising fairs will not solve the growing problem, but do help to alleviate tensions."
There are many educational and informational approaches to improving race relations. Organizations such as CALC have chosen the path of sharing common interests and experiences to help reduce prejudice. It is an important first step in smashing the stereotypes of the mercenary Jew, the dishonest Asian, the lazy or criminal black or Hispanic. There is no place for these specters in a pluralistic America based on civility, trust and respect.
Jack L. Levin is a Baltimore businessman.