NOW on the 63rd anniversary of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Americans see their country as far closer to realizing the civil rights leader's dream of racial equality and justice than was conceivable at the time of his assassination 24 years ago. Of the greatest importance here is the marked shift in assessments of black Americans themselves.
News accounts feature incidents that reflect continuing racial problems - from Los Angeles police beating a black man whom they had arrested, to former Klansman David Duke getting 55 percent of the vote of whites in last November's Louisiana gubernatorial runoff, to racially motivated hate crimes.
Such incidents are far too common. Nonetheless, blacks and whites alike see substantial progress in race relations and expect it to continue. In a national survey last September, the Los Angeles Times found fewer than 1 white American in 4 describing conditions for black Americans a decade ago as satisfactory (excellent or good); but more than 3 in 4 expecting them to be such a decade hence.
What's more impressive, blacks had much the same view. Just 21 percent said conditions for black people were satisfactory 10 years ago. Fifty-five percent expected conditions to be excellent or good 10 years from now, compared to 25 percent expecting them to be "not so good" and 13 percent "poor."
Black Americans don't, of course, see the country as a paragon racially. But their assessments are remarkably positive. Asked in the Los Angeles Times poll, "Have you, yourself, ever been discriminated against because of your race when you were seeking a job or educational opportunity," 50 percent had experienced discrimination but 49 percent said they never had.
Similarly, a Gallup poll taken last June found 55 percent of black respondents saying blacks in their community did not confront discrimination in housing; and 56 percent took the position that "black children have as good a chance as white children in [my] community to get a good education." Asked if they had ever been a victim of discrimination in getting "an education, a job, a promotion, or housing," 63 percent of the blacks interviewed answered that they had not.
The contrast between findings like these, which have been duplicated in other recent surveys, and those recorded in polls a quarter century ago is very sharp. Black Americans believe further change is needed, but they are far more positive about the country's racial performance now than they were at the time of Dr. King's death.
Blacks and whites view each other far more positively today than they did in even the quite recent past. When the June 1991 Gallup survey asked, "Who do you think is more to blame for the present condition in which blacks find themselves, white people or blacks themselves?", just 11 percent of black respondents said that whites are more to blame. A majority thought that blame must be shared, and 25 percent held that blacks themselves were the more responsible.
Behavior undoubtedly lags behind. It's important nonetheless that the proportion of white Americans acknowledging the ideal of racial equality has grown markedly. In 1963, two-thirds said there should be laws against the marriage of blacks and whites; last year, in a National Opinion Research Center survey, three-fourths said there shouldn't be. Racial integration in schools is endorsed by overwhelming majorities of white Americans, Northerners and Southerners alike. In 1958 two-thirds of whites maintain ed they wouldn't vote for a black person for president, however qualified; more than four-fifths now say they would.
America's legacy from racial discrimination is a bitter one. It's understandable that many analysts want to stress the magnitude of the remaining racial problems, and resist anything that might seem to somehow invite national self-congratulation. But it's a fact that in the last 24 years the United States has taken important steps toward realizing King's dream, and that large numbers of black Americans see this. We should take heart, and resolve to do as much in the next 24 years.