RACIAL prejudice, religious bias - hatred fueled by color, creed, or gender differences - are all an abomination to a discreet but compassionate society. Most people know that discrimination is wrong - and would never even consider throwing rocks at blacks or desecrating a synagogue or hurling verbal epithets that slur a particular minority.
But too often prejudice is more subtle than that.
Some unashamedly laugh at jokes about Poles or Greeks and ``Jewish-American princesses'' - and rationalize that this is just funny stuff.
Many watch television specials promoting racial tolerance and interreligious understanding, and openly discuss the merit of interracial marriage.
But at the same time, they unthinkingly embrace stereotypes about the laziness of ghetto blacks and the religious idiosyncrasies of Seventh-day Adventists or Jehovah's Witnesses.
Such people say, ``We are not the bigots! It's those other fellows.'' The unenlightened, the uneducated, the unsophisticated. Or is it?
Racism and religious prejudice survive not solely because of those who instigate these attitudes - but also because of those who put up with them.
Twenty years ago, in the wake of urban riots in Los Angeles and Detroit and elsewhere, a national panel on civil disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, said it was imperative to reverse the trend toward ``two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal.''
The Kerner report explained that a ``change of attitudes and the commitment'' of the nation were needed to heal the racial wounds in the United States.
Just recently, a group of specialists in urban affairs met in Racine, Wis., to assess the progress made in promoting understanding between those of different colors in the last two decades.
Despite significant gains, this group pointed out that the plight of inner-city blacks is as dismal as it was in the 1960s. And although communities are relatively quiet on the surface, ``quiet riots'' - in the form of unemployment, poverty, housing and school segregation, and crime - are still separating the black, brown, and white segments of society.
Poverty, homelessness, joblessness, and separatism breed resentment - even violence. And this reaction often begets counterreaction - in the form of racial confrontation in the street, on the campuses, in the workplace.
Religious prejudice grows from different roots - usually ignorance and fear but also from tradition.
``You have to be carefully taught by the time you are 6 or 7 or 8 ... to hate everyone your relatives hate,'' wrote Rodgers and Hammerstein in a ``South Pacific'' lyric that sadly continues to ring true.
As a society, we are probably most aware of continuing verbal attacks and physical assaults on Jews and Jewish property. The annual report of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith shows a sharp reversal in a five-year downward trend in anti-Semitic incidents.
This increase comes in the face of increased local and federal law enforcement crackdowns on crimes of bias.
Perhaps more subtle religious discrimination is surfacing in attempts to curtail the activities of so-called non-mainstream religions, including placing limits on fund raising and indictments of parents whose children have died after reliance on spiritual means, rather than medical treatment, for healing.
Despite this, there are significant signs of a search for solutions - and efforts to promote religious and racial understanding.
Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Jews are engaged in a continuing dialogue to foster understanding of one another's traditions and theological approaches.
Other religions, including Muslims, are sometimes brought into these discussions.
Communities such as Cambridge, Mass., are holding public forums on how to address, and combat, racism from within.
The US House of Representatives recently overwhelmingly passed a Hate Crimes Statistics Act. This bill requires the federal government to keep track of crimes motivated by prejudice.
A report by the National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence points out that extremist groups, including white supremacists and neo-Nazis, use cable television to ``promote hatred based on race, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.''
Birch Bayh, the institute chairman and a former US senator, calls on public officials, human rights groups, community leaders, and cable operators to be alert to these messages and develop effective responses to them.
In the end it is up to each one of us. To expose prejudice is a good step. To litigate and legislate against it may also be necessary. But to effectively and permanently eliminate it, religious and racial hatred must first be uprooted from individual consciousness.
A Thursday column