Washington — The presidential candidates are largely avoiding one of the most pressing problems facing the United States: its growing underclass. Twenty years after the Kerner Commission report on race relations, a group of mayors surveying the scene warn that, despite significant progress, the problem remains massive. In many ways, they indicate, the nation is more polarized than it was two decades ago.
``There is no more pressing point that this nation has to resolve than black-white relations today and white-nonwhite relations as a whole,'' a former mayor of New York, John V. Lindsay, said at the annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) this week. Mr. Lindsay was vice-chairman of the Kerner Commission, which documented the existence of two unequal societies, one black and one white.
``We've seen regression.... We have begun to develop an underclass,'' said Mayor Coleman Young of Detroit.
Henry Cisneros, mayor of San Antonio, stated bluntly that the nation cannot survive if it does not deal with the problem of a ``growing underfed, undereducated underclass.'' One trend getting worse, he said, is the widening distribution of income. The top one-fifth of Americans account for 43 percent of the national income - the largest share since World War II - while the bottom one-fifth account for 4.7 percent - the smallest share in that same period.
Without job training to get American workers out of low-paying jobs, Mayor Cisneros said, that chasm cannot be bridged nor can US trade problems be solved. Candidates, he suggested, were sleepwalking through the campaign without making a linkage between problems of the underclass and the US trade deficit.
Another ``reality,'' Cisneros said, is the changing demographics, with minorities becoming an increasingly larger share of the population. California, he noted, will consist in equal proportions of whites, Asians, blacks, and Hispanics by the year 2006 and ``these numbers will sweep across the country.'' The problems stemming from poverty, illiteracy, and crime will pose a ``very dire picture'' if the press, schools, and government do not prepare to deal with this trend.
The news media, Cisneros said, must explain to the American people that these are not ``minority issues'' but have to do with the survival of the country. As keepers of the cultural ethos, he said, the media have an important role to play in keeping egalitarian ideas to the fore.
Minorities and the problems of illiteracy and education have been a conspicuous theme at the editors' convention. In a report released today, the ASNE noted that the profile of future potential newspaper customers is undergoing ``massive, rapid, and profound change,'' including the fact that minorities are increasing more rapidly than the general population.
``Today, we are a nation of 14.6 million Hispanics and 26.5 million blacks,'' states the report. ``But by 2020 we will be a nation of 44 million blacks and 47 million Hispanics - even more if Hispanic immigration rates increase.''
What this means, the report says, is that the educational system will be absorbing a group of children ``who will be poorer, more ethnically and linguistically diverse, and who will have more handicaps that will affect their learning. ... None of this bodes well for newspapers,'' it adds.
The report cites Department of Education figures showing that, if present patterns do not change, the US will add 2.3 million illiterate adults (including whites) annually, or some 30 million by the end of the century.
``That means America could face the prospect of having a virtually untrainable pool of 90 million illiterate citizens as it enters the 21st century,'' the report observes.
In an effort to remedy racial and ethnic discrimination in the field of journalism, 10 years ago the ASNE set itself the goal of achieving equality in newsrooms by the turn of the century. A 1988 ASNE survey of minority employment on newspapers issued this week finds that there has been ``steady but slow growth.''
The proportion of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and American Indians in newsrooms rose from 6.56 percent last year to 7.02 percent, the survey of more than 1,000 newspapers states. The number of minority journalists at daily newspapers increased from 3,600 to 3,900. Only 4.1 percent of the 12,600 supervisory positions on daily newspapers are held by minorities.
The need for more rapid progress is self-evident. ``More than half of all American newspapers - 55 percent - still have no minorities on their staff,'' Katherine Fanning, editor of The Christian Science Monitor and outgoing president of ASNE, told the convention. ``This is deplorable. And it is a weakness which must be corrected if we are to serve this country as we should.''