BROTHERHOOD can be a confining concept, suggesting narrow ties - bound to a neighborhood, a trade, a church, or a race. Or it can be universal, implying a connection among individuals of all backgrounds. Universality is what the National Conference of Christians and Jews has in mind this week with Brotherhood/Sisterhood Week. The conference, formed in 1928, during a time of shrill racism and anti-Semitism, has sponsored these observances for 54 years.
In this election season, Americans are being nudged to think a little harder than usual about what they believe. Brotherhood has a place in this self-examination. What does it mean in terms of public policy? For example, do prosperous suburbanites have a responsibility to help inner-city children get a good education? And can issues like this be taken on in a spirit of mutuality?
To answer that last question with a yes, we have to move beyond the narrow consciousness of race, class, gender, and sect which thwarts cooperative action. The evidence indicates that, inch by inch, we're doing that. Today, no serious candidate could run for national or statewide office on an openly racist, anti-Semitic, or sexist platform. A black is running a credible campaign for president; a woman has run for vice-president. Civil rights legislation has helped push discrimination beyond the bounds of acceptable American behavior.
Those who survey public opinion have seen a marked decline in some measures of intolerance over the past 35 years. For example, the proportion of white respondents who say they wouldn't want a black neighbor dropped from 63 percent in 1948 to 13 percent last year.
So there's cause for encouragement. But as late as 1985, 61 percent of whites surveyed were saying that blacks ``should not push themselves where they're not wanted.'' What does that mean to black or Hispanic youths? Are they wanted on a police force, in a fraternity, a professional organization, a good union job?
Black students at the University of Massachusetts are occupying a building, protesting bigotry on campus. Racially motivated crimes still make headlines. And white supremacist groups occasionally surface with bursts of hate and scrawled swastikas.
Something as ingrained as prejudice - judging others through the lens of allegiance to one's own group - is not easily dispelled. Prejudice can seem a refuge; it can be popular. But America is a pluralistic society, and its progress against intolerance is crucial not to Americans alone, but to everyone in a diverse world.
Chief Justice Charles Evan Hughes, one of the founders of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, said it well: ``The inter-group problem of the nation rises like a specter in the path of democracy and dares her to come on.''
This dare must be taken.