Plans for new public housing projects always lead to hundreds of fresh inquiries at the Houston Housing Authority. But one recent call from an elderly black woman, following an announcement that a downtown hotel would be converted to elderly housing, took Esther de Ipolyi by surprise. ``She wanted to know if the project would be segregated, or if anyone could apply,'' says Ms. de Ipolyi, the housing authority's public information officer. ``I was shocked. I wanted to say, `There's this little thing called the Civil Rights Act of 1964.'''
The days of overt racism in Texas and neighboring Southern states are past. But whether public attitudes have shifted to reflect the law is a different question.
Now a survey of Texans indicates that racial prejudice has declined significantly in the state over the past 20 years. The poll, which compares answers to questions gauging racial bias to responses from a similar survey in 1968, reveals a Texas where whites claim to be much more accepting of black neighbors, black children at the public swimming pool, and black schoolmates and teachers for their children.
Coming as it does on the heels of a deadly racial attack in New York City that has captured the nation's attention, the poll has played prominently in many Texas newspapers. At the same time some columnists have cited the New York incident, in which a black man was killed following an attack by several white youths, to point out the double standard they see in continued Northern references to racism in the South.
Sociologists and other experts agree that racial attitudes in Texas have changed. But many of them doubt the change is as broad, and as deep, as the poll might indicate.
``I think there has been substantial change in Texas relative to what racial attitudes once were,'' says James Dyer, director of the Texas Poll, which surveyed nearly 1,000 white and some Hispanic Texans for the results. ``But there's still a good deal of prejudice left,'' he adds, pointing out that a large percentage of the respondents indicated only partial acceptance of blacks. ``The results indicate that people now don't find it acceptable to acknowledge racism,'' he says.
Following that reasoning is Norval Glenn, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert in public opinion polling. While he finds that ``the changes in Texas are real,'' he adds that ``today, unlike in the 1960s, many people feel constrained to give a nonprejudiced response, even though it may not reflect what they really feel.''
The survey found that 80 percent of Texans either completely accept or accept somewhat blacks living next door, compared with 43 percent in the 1968 survey. While only 37 percent said in 1968 that they accepted blacks using the same public pools as whites, 78 percent said they accepted that today; 68 percent said they would accept a black college roommate for their child, compared with 26 percent in the earlier survey. The Texas poll is part of Texas A&M University's Public Policy Research Laboratory.
In acknowledging changes in racial attitudes, sociologists and others cited the influence of antidiscrimination laws, as well as improved access for blacks to better jobs and better education, among the long-term causes. The large influx of people from around the country into Texas, bringing with them varying points of view, was also considered important.
``There has been progress, and a lot of doors have opened up,'' says Jim Harrington, legal director for the Texas Civil Liberties Union. ``Minority people can pretty much move into the areas they want, ... if they have the financial means.''
Like the others, however, he tempers that optimistic view, adding that ``doing it doesn't necessarily mean acceptance - that is still a hurdle.''
Yet even that tempered assessment is too optimistic for Alphine Jefferson, director of the Afro-American Studies Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. ``I don't believe [the survey] at all,'' he says, adding his belief that the 1980's have actually seen a renewed acceptance of racist attitudes.
The poll's results, he says, are further indication that ``we are not discussing racism in America in the 1980s, the subject is on a back burner, so people are far more likely to give positive responses.''
The survey results suggesting a high acceptance of black neighbors ``in reality is just not happening,'' says Dr. Jefferson, who specializes in housing issues. ``Many blacks cannot afford to move from their segregated neighborhoods,'' he says, ``and if they can, they aren't allowed in. Most of those people who say they wouldn't mind a black neighbor don't have to worry about a black neighbor.''
The hypothetical acceptance of black neighbors could be put to a test in the Dallas area soon as the Dallas Housing Authority (DHA) settles a class-action lawsuit, brought by its black tenants, that effectively opens up Dallas suburbs to low-income housing residents.
The 18-month-old suit alleges the DHA actually encouraged segregation of low-income residents and kept them from living in other areas. The settlement, scheduled to be announced today, allows participants in federal rent-subsidy programs to seek housing outside the city limits of Dallas.
``This should increase dramatically the low-income resident's choice to live outside segregated neighborhoods,'' says Elizabeth Julian, lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case. It will also test to what extent Texans are willing to accept blacks around them, she adds.
``Anybody would let Bill Cosby move in next door,'' says Ms. Julian, adding that low-income blacks are another matter. ``I don't think the suburbs accept our folks,'' she says, referring to her clients. ``It's just that they aren't able to find a way to refuse them.''