Washington — Race relations in America, in broad terms, have improved the past two decades -- clearly avoiding the Kerner commission's 1968 vision of a nation "moving toward two societies, one black, one white."
But nearly six months into the Reagan administration, US blacks are nonetheless worried. They feel a pause has come in their progress -- that whites in general, and thus the political climate, are abandoning them.
"Blacks and whites generally agree that things have improved tremendously for blacks the past two decades," says Jeff Alderman, director of the ABC poll, which completed a survey of race attitudes this spring. "But blacks don't see that there's been nearly enough change, while whites seem not only indifferent, but they feel it's up to blacks now to forge ahead."
Blacks strongly disapprove of Mr. Reagan's economic plan. They see it as disproportionately hurting the poor, many of whom are black.
"Whites generally feel a lot of progress has been made, and now it's up to blacks to do it themselves -- and that's not far from the Reagan message," Mr. Alderman says. "The whole idea of too much government in our lives is popular now. When it comes to race relations, whites definitely feel government has done as much as it can do -- now the opportunities are essentially there."
"Certainly there's been some progress made," says Paul Brock, spokesman for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "But in the present climate, a lot of the goodwill we've gained is changing. The Supreme Court has changed its outlook on the government's role, and the present administration certainly has a changed view on the government's role in race relations. We are preparing to fight some old battles over again, as well as some new battles."
The Reagan administration already has shown its concern in one highly sensitive area for US blacks -- the series of Atlanta youth murders now under investigation.
The Atlanta homicides, and a series of killings in Buffalo and New York, underline differences in the way American whites and blacks still look at prejudice. The ABC poll found 57 percent of whites view the murders as the action of isolated criminals, whereas 57 percent of blacks see them as part of a conspiracy to attack blacks.
Blacks -- particularly younger blacks -- tend to see discrimination persisting more strongly than do whites. When asked if police treat blacks as fairly as they treat whites, 60 percent of blacks say no, 56 percent of whites say yes. On the statement, "Blacks are not achieving equality because whites don't want them to," 74 percent of blacks agree, 47 percent of whites disagree, in the ABC survey.
The differences in black and white views of progress in race relations are a matter of degree, not of direction, concludes a survey by Public Opinion magazine in its latest issue. The direction has been positive, with blacks consistently seeing more gains in their immediate neighborhoods than for the nation as a whole.
Measuring the gains in the 1970's, an NBC News/Associated Press survey found 53 percent of whites and 18 percent of blacks thinking blacks across the US were "a lot better off." Some 33 percent of whites and 42 percent of blacks thought blacks "a little better off." A Roper Organization survey found 46 percent of blacks thought race relations in their neighborhoods had improved, as did 23 percent of whites. Only 4 percent of blacks and 8 percent of whites thought race relations had worsened.
"The white public shows itself far more inclined to accept full citizenship for blacks than, say, two decades ago -- measured by . . . a willingness to vote for people qualified for high office without regard to race, and acceptance of the principles of school and residential integration," comments Everett C. Ladd, editor of the Public Opinion race relations survey. "Yet, if the proportion of whites holding negative images of blacks has declined sharply over the past 15 to 20 years, it is still disturbingly high."
President Reagan has edged up in his approval rating among blacks, despite their apprehension about the effects of his economic program. The Gallup poll showed Reagan's rating among nonwhites rising from 22 percent approval in March to 31 percent in May -- though it remains among the lowest ratings tallied at comparable times during previous administration.
The Reagan administration claims it can help blacks most by containing inflation. Blacks, however, clearly feel discrimination will keep them from getting their share of improved economic conditions.
The ABC News/Washington Post survey found in March that 61 percent of the blacks surveyed felt blacks in their area generally were discriminated against in getting skilled-labor jobs. Only 21 percent of whites agreed. On wages, 57 percent of blacks and 13 percent of whites thought blacks were discriminated against in their area.
This bicolor view of discrimination persists in education and housing also, the ABC survey found. Nearly five times as many blacks as whites think blacks are discriminated against in getting a quality education. Forty-four percent of blacks vs. 17 percent of whites think blacks are blocked from getting decent housing.
Looking ahead a year, about a third of both blacks and whites see themse lves personally better off.