They may not evoke the feelings of "Let my people go" or "We shall overcome." But for Americans subjected to the embarrassment and fear of even relatively minor episodes of discrimination based on race - "driving while black" or "dining while black," to use the bitter slang for such events - the hurt is very real nevertheless.
Around the country, several high-profile instances of what's being called retail racism have arisen in recent months. The use of racial profiling in stopping suspected criminals on highways has become a federal civil rights issue. And evidence that zero tolerance for disruptive behavior in schools may be discriminatory against black students is mounting as well.
While civil rights advocates laud the recent exposure of discrimination and point to evidence that attitudes between races have improved, they say that for many nonwhite Americans such offenses are routine - even though it's been more than 35 years since passage of the federal Civil Rights Act.
"Most Americans think that the most blatant forms of discrimination and segregation have ended, that we're dealing now with a much more-complex, often more-subtle form of discrimination," says Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "Yet incidents like the ones we're discussing now seem to belie that point. They seem to suggest that even the more-blatant forms of discrimination, though not as institutionalized as they once were ... are still occurring, and I think stand in mockery of the perception that America has become a colorblind nation...."
Some recent examples:
*In the Washington area, KayBee Toys has been charged in a federal civil rights suit with refusing to accept personal checks at stores in predominately black neighborhoods. The Equal Rights Center, a civil rights organization in Washington that filed the suit, called this "an overt example of consumer racism."
*The US Justice Department recently charged the Adam's Mark Hotel chain with a pattern of discrimination, including overcharging black guests for inferior rooms while subjecting them to stricter security requirements.
*Florida officials charged a Miami restaurant owner with automatically adding a service charge to bills of black customers but not to those of white patrons.
*In Boston, city councilor Gareth Saunders has filed a complaint against a taxi service for refusing to pick him up at his home in a predominately black neighborhood. Black actor Danny Glover recently was refused taxi service in New York.
Progress in race relations
But as Americans prepare to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day this weekend, there are indications that attitudes between races are improving. In a comprehensive "social audit" of black-white relations, the Gallup Organization in Princeton, N.J., found "much evidence of improvement over the past several decades."
For example, 93 percent of whites surveyed in 1997 said they would vote for a qualified black presidential candidate, compared with 35 percent in 1958. The number of whites who say they would move if large numbers of blacks moved to their neighborhood dropped from 80 percent to 18 percent over the same period.
And yet it is clear that large numbers of blacks continue to experience discrimination. Within the past 30 days, half of blacks surveyed by Gallup said they had been treated unfairly because of race in situations such as shopping, dining out, work, using public transportation, or with police.
The fundamental reason for such lingering racism, says Leonard Steinhorn, professor of communication at American University in Washington, is that Dr. King's "dream" had two fundamental parts: legal desegregation and social integration.
The first part has largely been achieved through legislation and government policy; the second, more difficult part - Mr. Steinhorn calls it "matters of heart, home, neighborhood, and community" - has yet to be accomplished.
"None of this would be an issue if racial integration had been successfully achieved in this country," says Steinhorn, co-author of "By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race."
"If skin color were merely descriptive rather than defining," he says, "then economic discrimination would be randomly distributed among whites, blacks, and everybody else.... It wouldn't be discrimination, it would just be impoliteness and rudeness."
"Whites tend to believe that race relations have never been better and we have largely eliminated racism from mainstream American life," says Steinhorn, a contributing editor for the Internet magazine TomPaine.com. "To most blacks, anyone making such a claim doesn't know what it's like to be black."
For most Americans, separation of the races remains the social norm, says Steinhorn. "And it's this lack of familiarity [that] breeds stereotypes."
Episodes involving "racial profiling" and law enforcement came to a head last year with evidence that New Jersey state troopers were much more likely to pull over black or Hispanic drivers on suspicion that they had been involved in criminal activity, simply because of their race. After an investigation by the US Justice Department, the state last month agreed to end the practice - a step federal officials expect will influence other jurisdictions.
In a related incident this week, a federal appeals court upheld a $245,000 verdict against two police officers in Torrance, Calif., who stopped a car with three teenagers, two of whom are black.
"For no good reason, two police officers stopped their car without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, conducted an illegal search of the vehicle, and used degrading and excessive force...," the court said in its unanimous ruling.
While many school districts have been cracking down on violence in the wake of recent school shootings, critics say policies of "zero tolerance" (usually enacted and enforced by mostly white school boards) have resulted in discriminatory judgments.
Last month, the Applied Research Center in Oakland, Calif., reported that the rate of school suspensions is far higher for black students than for whites nationwide. In Austin, Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, the suspension rate for black students is at least twice their percentage of the student population.
In Decatur, Ill., this week, a federal judge upheld the school board's expulsion of six black students for fighting at a football game. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson charged that racism was involved, and he plans to appeal the decision.
Such revelations, though troubling, are a good thing for society, says Mr. Henderson. "Many people were unaware of the degree to which zero tolerance, blindly applied, produces unfair results. "Misperceptions and stereotypes often play a subtle ... role in shaping the outcome of decisionmaking in individual institutions. These disparities really do raise questions that have not been adequately answered."
"We've not reached the promised land," said Yolanda King, the late civil rights leader's daughter this week. "We're still wandering around, bumping into each other in the wilderness of ignorance and hate. That is why the King holiday is so important."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society