Alarmism about race issues swells. Unfortunately, there is still a need to be watchful of prejudice in our society. Witness the results of focus-group discussions held in December with two dozen young whites -- all between the ages of 18 and 24 -- in Raleigh, North Carolina. They openly discussed their feelings about black people with a pollster. Consider some representative statements:
''They [blacks] seem rowdy. They seem like they're mad about something. I mean, there are some that don't act that way, but they act like they're angry and they come in acting like they're treated unfairly.''
''White people have always tried to work and work and work, build their way up. Some blacks feel like they worked back in the 1800s, so they don't have to work now.''
''They're just different. It's kind of bad to say, but I mean they TC have an odor that's different from white people unless they cover it up with a deodorant or cologne or something of that nature. You know, their hair is different. . . . It's just that I don't seek interest in these people and I don't think I'm prejudiced because of that.''
Few black Americans -- myself included -- would find these comments startling. After all, Americans have been habituated to racism for decades. What is shocking, and indeed frightening, is how these attitudes have resisted increased integration, often legally mandated, over the last 25 years.
The promise embodied by the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and '60s seemed to point toward progress. The popular image of black Americans then was of suffering martyrs, the victims of centuries of oppression -- a view that gave blacks a particular moral authority. In the last quarter-century, this perception has given way to a view of blacks as freeloaders, criminals and even as sub-human. These sentiments are not new; but their resurgence among young Americans is disconcerting. Integration, it was believed, would rid us of negative stereotypes and general hostility toward blacks.
National politicians and the media -- white and black -- bear responsibility for the reinvigoration of stereotyping of blacks. The attempt to make black people seem virtual wards of the government ingrains the presumption of inferiority in the minds of young whites. Why else, they ask, must black people rely on the government for jobs and welfare, other than because they are incapable of making it on their own devices?
Of course, we can blame the whites quoted above for their own myopia; there seemed to be a common feeling that somehow, they were victims in all this. The sense of being wronged by black people came through again and again, ranging from a resentment of black organizations like the United Negro College Fund to complaints about the portrayal of whites in the television comedy ''In Living Color.''
But this is a classic case of ''garbage in, garbage out.'' The failure of opinion leaders, from academics to journalists to politicians, to address persuasively the issues that divide the races -- and in some cases, a propensity to exacerbate these divisions -- has created a younger generation that is less tolerant and more contentious.
Tragically, there is no one with the credibility to make the issue an item of real national attention and debate. Black leaders are perceived as self-interested opportunists. White liberals have lost their authority to speak on nearly every issue of national concern -- especially this one -- because of their continued, obvious ineptitude as policy makers. Conservatives have cynically manipulated race by condemning quotas while advocating the creation of minority voting districts; they, too, are in no position to lead.
But beyond laying blame, there is a real-life dilemma: The young people who participated in these focus groups are voters who will be choosing our leaders. If the gulf of experience between whites and blacks continues to grow as it has the past 25 years, and the majority-white electorate continues to view blacks as inferior, then black Americans and the nation as a whole may face perilous consequences.
As crime problems worsen and spread into ''safe, white middle-class enclaves,'' whites who think of blacks as inferior and dangerous may become desperate in the voting booth. And desperate people may turn to extreme means.
It has become more than a moral imperative to heal our country's racial wounds. It is a practical necessity. Should race relations degenerate further, we will see America's turn to an era in which the repression of blacks is not just tolerated, but actively supported by a majority of whites.
David S. Bernstein is the editor of Diversity: A Critical Journal of Race and Culture.