RACE in America lies at the center of this country's ''precious, precarious experiment with democracy,'' says Dr. Cornel West, author of ''Race Matters'' and a professor of Afro-American studies and the philosophy of religion at Harvard University. In his view, how Americans think and act about race is closely linked to the democracy's survival. ''In the end, we go up together or we go down together,'' he says.
His remarks were part of a day-long seminar here March 10 that touched on housing, education, arts, media, religion, and sports in the context of ''How Race Shapes Life in America.''
The occasion was the 20th anniversary of Brooklyn's Starrett at Spring Creek, a model project of integrated housing for 6,000 families where the white-black ratio is about 50-50. Robert Rosenberg, director of Starrett Housing Corporation, decided that a dialogue about race would be a more meaningful way to celebrate than a party.
Recent polls show that most Americans now consider overt racism unacceptable. Many people assume accordingly that racial discrimination is down. That conclusion lies behind the current push to end affirmative-action programs that extend racial and gender preference in contracts, school admissions, and jobs as a remedial measure for past discrimination. Yet a recent Newsweek poll shows that well over two-thirds of both blacks and whites consider race relations fair to poor.
One problem is the persistence of stereotypes in the media. TV stories on welfare, poverty, and crime often feature blacks.
''There is no such thing as 'black crime,' '' says playwright Stanley Crouch. ''Black criminals don't represent black people. They represent criminals.... People in the press need to make that very clear.''
Clarence Page, columnist of the Chicago Tribune, says city news organizations may send an unmarked truck out to film blacks for a story on cocaine sales because the filming is easy. Yet he notes that the majority of cocaine purchases involve whites. ''White folks do their drug dealing behind closed doors,'' he explains.
Too often, Mr. Page says, blacks do not get the credit they deserve. While many people think most blacks are poor and largely responsible for increases in out-of-wedlock teen births, the growth rate of such births for black teens actually leveled off in 1970 while it has gone up 150 percent for white teens, he says. And one-third of all blacks have incomes below the poverty line.
Civil rights laws and regulations over the last 30 years have brought some gains in housing and school integration as well as in more balanced textbooks and curricula, speakers said. Trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, for instance, recalled that his history books had pictures of ''Negroes'' smiling on plantations and no mention of abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
After five decades of persistently remaining high, black-white housing segregation declined in the 1980s, particularly in fast-growing cities of the South and West where much of the newer housing is concentrated, according to University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Reynolds Farley. The smallest declines, according to US Census data, were in older cities of the Northeast and Midwest. ''The American apartheid system continues but it is weakening,'' Dr. Farley concludes.
Still, many African-Americans find housing loans difficult to obtain. Most statistics show people of color are two to four times more likely than whites to be denied a loan, says John Taylor of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.
Also, if homes are to become a place where Americans work, shop, and talk via computer, says C. Austin Fitts, a founder of Hamilton Securities and a former federal housing official, the whole definition of housing and access may require rethinking. If multifamily and moderate-income housing is unplugged and off-line, the result could be a new kind of ghetto, she says.
All speakers on the education panel agreed that public schools are not doing the job they should for minorities. Yet some speakers argue that the talk about and motivation behind expanding school choice and alternative school programs is largely political.
Alex Molnar, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee says he views such options, including that of contracting out teaching to private firms, as ''the smiling face of disinvestment, or racism by another name.'' In his view, the range of choice for most low-income students is strictly limited.Such alternatives, he says, are no substitute for the need to put more money into public schools and make them succeed.
''Those who choose some of the better schools are already high achievers,'' says Henry Der, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a civil rights group in San Francisco. ''In San Francisco, alternative schools tend to become the enclaves of white and Asian middle-class kids. What I'm most concerned about is really the resegregation of our public schools.''
Still, the subject of race and integrated schools rarely surfaced in the education discussion.
''It is important to crack segregation and discrimination, but the bottom line is that I shouldn't have to move to get good schools, good housing, and good services,'' says Dr. Mel King, director of the Community Fellows Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ''The emphasis on integration implicitly devalues the place where we are asking people to move from... We have to work with people so that where they are is as good as any other place.''