IN the past 25 years, the United States has made notable progress in countering the destructive effects of racism. For example, growing numbers of minorities, particularly blacks, have entered ever higher echelons of business and government.
Yet the political remedies necessary to blunt racism's impact on society may be hitting their limits. Affirmative-action programs are being successfully challenged in reverse-discrimination lawsuits, while residents of some minority neighborhoods are asking for good schools where they live, not at the end of a bus ride.
The need to meet racism at a more fundamental level is growing, and not only for the United States. In a controversial article in Foreign Affairs magazine last summer, Harvard University's Samuel P. Huntington laid out a global future where clashes between civilizations replace those between cold-war ideologies. It comes as little surprise that race is one of the characteristics that separates - although by no means neatly - the civilizations he cites.
Last April, a New York Times/CBS News survey indicated the road traveled and the distance remaining. When asked if race relations in the US had improved in the past 25 years, a majority of blacks and whites said yes. But when asked if race relations were generally good or bad, a majority of both groups said generally bad.
In his book ``Race Matters,'' Cornel West, director of Afro-American Studies at Princeton University, notes the current weaknesses in dealing with race: ``For liberals, black people are to be `included' and `integrated' into `our' society and culture, while for conservatives they are to be `well-behaved' and `worthy of acceptance' by `our' way of life. Both fail to see that the presence and predicaments of black people are neither additions to nor defections from American life, but rather constitutive elements of that life.''
``To establish a new framework,'' he writes, ``we need to begin with a frank acknowledgment of the basic humanness and Americanness of each of us.'' Identifying what unites us is invaluable. But the point of identification must be taken one step further: to recognize the spiritual nature and heritage that each of us has as a child of God. As long as the basis for dealing with racism is left to biological, genetic, or national identity, it will remain superficial and vulnerable to manipulation and conflict.
The roots of racism - a disease of society - are found in fear, ignorance, and sin, which the founder of this newspaper, Mary Baker Eddy, identified as the roots of physical disease. This analysis has an obvious extension to societal ills as well. The fear: of competition for economic resources; of retribution as the ``outsiders'' gain political strength; and of the dilution or loss of one's own culture and identity as others gain footholds in society. The ignorance: a failure to engage other cultures constructively in ways that allow for discussions of racism with sensitivity and openness. The sin: failing to abide by the care and common sense of the Golden Rule and the dictum to love one's neighbor as oneself.
Each of these remains a roadblock unless efforts to fight racism are anchored in a sense of identity deeper and firmer than even ``humanness and Americanness.'' Otherwise, racism can continue to undermine the sense of self-worth among so-called majorities and minorities, to say nothing of the country's prospects as a multiracial society.
Individual efforts to bridge the gaps between races are indispensable, although too often they are sporadic or crisis-driven. Some crises are small scale: a black church firebombed in Smithfield, Miss., or a black child shot and wounded by an off-duty white police officer in Toledo, Ohio. Others are large scale: the riots in Los Angeles.
Yet the vessel for progress remains the individual.
The most effective vehicles: our houses of worship. Many of them were at the forefront of the abolition and civil rights movements, which they saw as essential to the nation's moral and spiritual health. School and community groups continue to help bring groups together. But neither they nor the state is positioned politically or socially to deal with the spiritual fundamentals involved: helping individuals establish their own unassailable spiritual value and recognize that of others.
Political mechanisms for redressing the destructive effects of discrimination are still needed. But the greater need is for a spiritual renewal that cuts racism off at its roots.
The last of a series. Previous installments included:
* Nov. 24: Overview
* Dec. 1: The environment
* Dec. 8: Religion in public affairs
* Dec. 15: Government corruption
* Dec. 22: Rights versus responsibilities
* Dec. 29: Genetic engineering
* Jan. 5: Visual pollution
* Jan 12: Violence and society
* Jan 19: Gambling
* Jan 26: Nuclear proliferation
* Feb. 2: The family