WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The first time I saw signs saying ''white'' and ''colored'' over water fountains while visiting Alabama as a child in the 1950s, I immediately ran over to the ''colored'' fountain and turned it on. Disappointingly, the water was clear just like the water we drank back home in the North.
''Why?'' I asked my parents.
That was the first day I heard the word ''segregation.'' It would not be the last.
Blacks are still more likely to live in segregated neighborhoods than Asians or Hispanics and probably will remain so, according to a recent University of Michigan study published in American Sociological Review.
It might not be as bad as it was when the late grass-roots community organizer Saul Alinsky declared integration to be that all-too-brief period between the time the first black family moves in and the last white family moves out. But it's not far off.
Polls show most blacks would prefer to live in an integrated neighborhood, but residential segregation is dropping so slowly ''it will take another 40 or 50 years for blacks to reach levels . . . now observed among Latinos and Asians,'' says one of the study's authors. How far we've come. How far we have to go.
A few weeks earlier, a Harvard study reported that de-facto racial segregation in America's schools has increased to its highest level since 1967. ''The civil-rights impulse of the 1960s is dead in the water,'' declared Gary Orfield, who directed the Harvard study.
In May, 40 years will have passed since the Supreme Court declared ''separate but equal'' schools to be unconstitutional. In July, 30 years will have passed since Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Both were triumphs, not only of law, but also of a bright idea: integration.
That bright idea has fallen on tough times. Never have I seen whites more weary of the idea that race is still a significant problem in America. Never have I seen blacks, particularly young blacks, so weary of pressing for white acceptance.
Malcolm X is in a post-mortem comeback. The Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan is on the cover of Time magazine.
Separatism was an inevitable byproduct of the turning inward to deal with aggravating internal problems like poverty, education and economic development. For all its virtues, integration unfortunately decimated black enterprise and left long-term poor more isolated than ever, not only from whites but also from the valuable resources and role models provided by success-oriented blacks.
All these trends are part of a larger changing reality: The most pressing problems facing black America today are economic, not civil rights, yet race still aggravates these problems more than most Americans want to acknowledge.
Once the civil-rights legislation of the mid-1960s was passed, I think most whites took on a sense that the great debate was over. Done. Mission accomplished.
But I think most blacks felt the great debate had only entered a new stage, that ''the civil-rights era'' (generally understood to be the period between the 1954 decision and the 1965 Voting Rights Act) was only a brief episode in a centuries-old uprising against racism.
Unfortunately, since so many whites already have declared their own innocence, you can hardly bring up the R-word these days. A lawyer who is defending the Rockford (Ill.) school district in a class-action school-segregation suit was quoted recently in USA Today as saying, ''Racist to me is a conscious attitude, like running around with hoods and white sheets.''
His district was charged with a 30-year pattern of discriminatory treatment: giving used textbooks to minority schools and new ones to white schools; forcibly busing minority students while whites were bused voluntarily; funneling white students into ''gifted'' classes, allegedly with separate classrooms, bathrooms and sometimes even separate entrances from other, mostly minority students.
But there were no hoods or white sheets, the requisite apparel for many people to see a truly serious racial problem.
We are making racial progress, but we don't have much real integration today. Mostly I hear whites who want blacks to ''assimilate,'' meaning they want blacks to suppress all racial concerns and cultural differences, and I hear blacks calling for ''desegregation,'' a great awakening by whites to what they are still doing wrong.
The good news is, we don't have signs anymore. The bad news is, we still lead largely separate lives.
True integration requires cultural sharing. It requires an understanding of each other's viewpoints. If we blacks howl about racism too much, maybe whites aren't howling enough. The truth is somewhere in the middle. We'll never get at it by ignoring each other or shouting at each other. We need to talk.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.