As an uncertain future looms, America's racial divide widens, polls find

October 11, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Joe Melsha, a 33-year-old office manager for a heating and cooling company in Iowa, appears to be the voice of a new American majority.

And the sentiments he imparts clearly are getting the attention of legislators and politicians: Government efforts to improve the lot of minorities in the United States have "gone too far."

"I mean, I'm not a racist and I'm not going to go out and shoot anybody, but I don't think (black Americans) deserve all the special programs that are offered to them," Mr. Melsha said.

"All the special programs (the government has) got is for everybody except the white male. I don't think it's right that they say you have to have so many blacks or so many women or so many Hispanics working in different factories."

While a minority of whites have long expressed opposition to affirmative action and special programs aimed at helping blacks, recent polls indicate that view is now held by a majority of white Americans.

At a time when they view their own economic futures with uncertainty, experts say, the nation's "haves" -- especially the white middle class -- say they are increasingly less willing to help those farther down the socioeconomic ladder. The feelings are harbored not so much out of animus toward blacks as they are a concern that opportunities are lessening for everyone and only so many can succeed.

As a result, black and white Americans are glaring at each other across a racial divide that once promised to narrow, but now appears to be widening. While whites have become more protective of their own status, blacks increasingly despair of ever achieving real equality.

The result, experts say, is that politicians -- sensitive to the

moods of the largest blocs of voters -- may respond by rolling back government social programs. Specifically, they say, the fears are likely to fuel campaigns by politicians pledging to end welfare programs, eliminate health care benefits for the poor and repeal anti-discrimination laws.

"Congress will come back in January as a more conservative body and that does not auger well for universal health care with protections for the poor and black segments of the population, nor does it speak well for the kind of meaningful civil rights protections that we feel are needed," said Wade Henderson, Washington director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "The same is likely to be true for welfare reform as we expect Congress will be urged by their constituents to adopt a plan that is punitive against the most helpless segments of our society."

At the root of the problem, numerous recent surveys suggest, is a deep sense among whites that black Americans are getting breaks -- in job opportunities, educational benefits and government programs -- that are enabling them to surpass the living standards of whites.

"A lot of white people see that one in seven blacks have household income at $50,000 or above and conclude that too many black people are doing well," said Bill Boyd, a fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "That's when white people seem to make the illogical leap. They think everybody is equal and point to those black people doing well and say, therefore, we don't need to do any more to help any black people."

Tom Wicker, the retired New York Times columnist, said in the course of his writing a book on the fate of racial integration in American society he has noticed a sense of creeping frustration among whites toward blacks' social gains.

"Busing was a factor," Mr. Wicker said. "Affirmative action was a factor. Crime is an enormous factor. I think also the advent of the Reagan-Bush administration, which was the first time in 20 years the government began to side against blacks in certain cases, tended to validate hardening white people's attitudes toward blacks."

Mr. Wicker says although the trend has been developing for some time, pollsters failed to monitor it because respondents often did not express their true feelings. "I think probably for a long time (white) people either didn't want to admit how they felt or somehow thought their feelings were out of step with everybody else," he said. "But I think over the last few years . . . people have become more willing to tell poll-takers what they actually think."

That view is underscored by a nationwide survey recently released by the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press. The telephone poll of 3,800 adults, 18 years of age or older, revealed white Americans' views toward black Americans have hardened so much that 51 percent of the whites surveyed agree that equal rights have been pushed too far in this country. That figure represents the first time in the seven-year history of the center's polling that a majority of white Americans said so; in 1992, 42 percent agreed that equal rights had gone too far, and in 1987, only 16 percent felt that way.

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