Taking the Measure of Race Relations in US Democracy Conference Debates Progress in Areas Such as Housing, Arts, Education, and the Media

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RACE in America lies at the center of this country's "precious, precarious experiment with democracy," says Dr. Cornel West, author of "Race Matters" and a professor of Afro-American studies and the philosophy of religion at Harvard University. In his view, how Americans think and act about race is closely linked to the democracy's survival. "In the end, we go up together or we go down together," he says.

His remarks were part of a day-long seminar here March 10 that touched on housing, education, arts, media, religion, and sports in the context of "How Race Shapes Life in America."

The occasion was the 20th anniversary of Brooklyn's Starrett at Spring Creek, a model project of integrated housing for 6,000 families where the white-black ratio is about 50-50. Robert Rosenberg, director of Starrett Housing Corporation, decided that a dialogue about race would be a more meaningful way to celebrate than a party.

Recent polls show that most Americans now consider overt racism unacceptable. Many people assume accordingly that racial discrimination is down. That conclusion lies behind the current push to end affirmative-action programs that extend racial and gender preference in contracts, school admissions, and jobs as a remedial measure for past discrimination. Yet a recent Newsweek poll shows that well over two-thirds of both blacks and whites consider race relations fair to poor.

One problem is the persistence of stereotypes in the media. TV stories on welfare, poverty, and crime often feature blacks.

"There is no such thing as 'black crime,' " says playwright Stanley Crouch. "Black criminals don't represent black people. They represent criminals.... People in the press need to make that very clear."

Clarence Page, columnist of the Chicago Tribune, says city news organizations may send an unmarked truck out to film blacks for a story on cocaine sales because the filming is easy. Yet he notes that the majority of cocaine purchases involve whites. "White folks do their drug dealing behind closed doors," he explains.

Too often, Mr. Page says, blacks do not get the credit they deserve. While many people think most blacks are poor and largely responsible for increases in out-of-wedlock teen births, the growth rate of such births for black teens actually leveled off in 1970 while it has gone up 150 percent for white teens, he says. And one-third of all blacks have incomes below the poverty line.

Civil rights laws and regulations over the last 30 years have brought some gains in housing and school integration as well as in more balanced textbooks and curricula, speakers said. Trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, for instance, recalled that his history books had pictures of "Negroes" smiling on plantations and no mention of abolitionist Harriet Tubman. …