Polls suggest racial split is growing wider in U.S.

October 12, 1994|By Sam Fulwood III | Sam Fulwood III,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.

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.

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.

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.

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

A telephone poll of 3,800 adults, 18 years of age or older, recently released by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press, 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.

"These findings suggest that maybe the country is well on track toward a more polarized society than we are willing to admit," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Times Mirror polling center. "Clearly, there seems to be less concern on the part of whites toward blacks. They are feeling anxiety about their lives and less charitable toward those [blacks] less fortunate."

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