CHICAGO — AS officials in Matteson, Ill., watched their community shift rapidly from 80-percent white to nearly half black, they faced a choice: accept ''white flight'' or try to stop it.
But when Matteson decided this spring to shore up its white population, it set off an avalanche of negative publicity. ''Matteson Wants Whites Only,'' a local headline blared in April after the village board signed a $37,000 contract with a Chicago-based marketing firm to try to lure more white home-seekers.
Although many residents support the plan to keep Matteson racially diverse, others - both black and white - say it smacks of racism. ''It offends me, it makes me feel they don't want any more blacks here,'' says Cleo Ward, a recent high school graduate, who is black. He moved to Matteson from Chicago with his parents six years ago.
The racial controversy in this middle-class town of 11,400 people is likely to become more common in communities across America as the nation's minority population grows. By the mid-21st century, racial and ethnic minorities will make up nearly half of the United States population. The crucial question, experts say, is whether this shift will lead to integration of races or segregation.
''Will we be a nation of segregated communities or a nation of diverse communities?'' asks Philip Nyden, chairman of the Loyola University Chicago Department of Sociology and Anthropology and an expert on racial diversity.
The US today is overwhelmingly segregated, despite its image as a ''melting pot,'' experts say. Stable racial diversity exists in only about 5 percent of American communities, Professor Nyden says. In Chicago, a city known for its myriad of racial and ethnic groups, less than 10 percent of neighborhoods are truly diverse, he says.
Segregation is most pronounced for black Americans, with roughly a third of all blacks in the US living under conditions of intense racial isolation, recent studies show. Moreover, blacks are twice as segregated as Latinos and Asian-Americans.
Nationwide polls indicate, however, that many Americans are unsatisfied with the status quo. Up to 40 percent of black Americans and 30 percent of whites have expressed a desire to live in diverse neighborhoods, according to a Harris Poll.
Still, the trials of Matteson and other communities suggest that creating stable, racially diverse communities is difficult, even with the active support of residents, businesses, and officials.
Historically, many of the communities that have achieved long-term diversity have invested decades in the effort. In most cases, socially progressive residents of predominantly white suburbs took the lead in attracting minorities to their neighborhoods.
Examples include the Cleveland suburbs of Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights; Southfield, Mich., outside Detroit; Teaneck, N.J., near Newark, N.J.; and Ferguson, Mo., north of St. Louis.
In the Cleveland vicinity, the Cuyahoga Plan is one of the oldest and largest programs in the country aimed at creating fair housing opportunities across a wide regional market. Set up in 1974, the plan covers about 48 communities with a population of 1.8 million.
But progress is slow, says Michael Roche, executive director of the Cuyahoga Plan. ''We're facing a real challenge in expanding opportunities into communities that have been racially isolated,'' he says. ''We could see growing pockets of segregation.''
Outside Chicago, the suburban village of Oak Park has spent the past 27 years building a multicultural community. Before Oak Park passed a fair-housing ordinance in 1968, blacks were essentially barred access to the community. Now blacks and other minorities make up more than 20 percent of the population of 53,000.
''Here whites and blacks buy houses from each other and live side-by-side,'' says Oak Park community-relations director Sherlynn Reid. Each year, representatives from Oak Park and about 40 other communities attend a forum to discuss ways to promote racial diversity. Oak Park set up the exchange, the first of its kind, in 1977.
Still, Oak Park must work hard to maintain a stable racial balance. The integrated neighborhood is surrounded by unstable, highly segregated communities of whites, blacks, and Latinos. The next-door Chicago neighborhood of Austin, for example, saw its population change from 95 percent white to 95 percent black during the 1970s.
This historic trend of blacks moving in and whites moving out has for decades created all-black neighbors in Chicago and other metropolitan areas.
In Matteson, the pattern of demographic change resembles the rapid resegregation of Austin far more than the slow integration of Oak Park.
A quiet residential town surrounded by farms and shopping malls, Matteson has seen its black population shoot up from 12 percent in 1980 to 44 percent in 1990, according to US census figures. Meanwhile, the number of whites dropped 31 percent from 8,288 to 5,687.
Whites left because of job transfers and because ''a lot of people just didn't want to deal with the integration,'' says Patricia Backus, one of Matteson's elected village trustees. Despite a 73 percent rise in Matteson's median income in the 1980s, many whites also fled out of fear that a large black population would bring economic stagnation and falling property values, residents say.
As a result, last year a 50-member Matteson ''quality of life'' task force composed of residents and officials decided to try to put the brakes on white flight and lock in diversity.
This spring, Matteson launched its drive to ''affirmatively market'' the village among whites. ''We're not saying that we don't want blacks to buy homes here, but we want everyone looking at Matteson,'' says Robin Kelly, community relations director of the village.
Still, the controversial policy upset both black and white residents as well as Chicago-area branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
''Doesn't this come down to saying that whites are better than blacks?'' asks Starr Mercer-Horne, a black who ran against the plan during her failed campaign for village trustee last spring.
Joe Pujdak, a minister who lives in the predominantly white Old Matteson neighborhood, also feels uneasy about the plan to target whites. ''It just sounds bad, like there's some kind of problem.'' he says
Others, however, applaud the move. ''It took a lot of courage for people to address the issue of white flight honestly,'' says Rev. Richard Bundy, a minister at Matteson's 4,000-member, predominantly black New Faith Baptist Church. ''Having experienced both, I think a diverse community is best,'' he said.
Sociologists warn that rapidly changing communities such as Matteson rarely succeed in retaining a diverse population. Nevertheless, village officials are working diligently to promote good race relations and stop the fear of community decline from becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.
To promote racial harmony, Matteson is holding day-long ''prejudice reduction workshops'' for residents at churches and schools. In one recent workshop, black and white participants threw phrases at each other like ''honkie'' and ''Ku Klux Klan'' and shared personal experiences of discrimination.
The village is also lobbying realtors to prevent the ''steering'' of home-seekers to segregated communities and are hounding appraisers to fairly assess property values, and holding public forums to educate residents about their rights as home-buyers.
Some white residents, encouraged by the quality teaching and rising test scores at Matteson's integrated schools, say they plan to stay for the sake of their children. ''The world is diverse, and I think children need to grow up knowing that,'' says Reverend Pujdak as he lifts his young daughter, Kimberly, onto a jungle gym. ''Children don't know the difference - they're taught the difference.''