For all of America's racial problems, it appears the melting-pot concept still lives.
At work, in their neighborhoods, and at school, Americans of different races are having more contact with one another, according to a major poll on discrimination released yesterday. That interaction, in turn, is generating greater feelings of closeness among ethnic groups.
Yet racial hatred and prejudice appear to be an inextricable ingredient in the pot. Americans now believe homosexuals to be the group most discriminated against in the country, though blacks still lead all groups in terms of the number of direct experiences with discrimination.
While the trend of increased contact - even friendship - among groups is moving us forward, "we are still a society that has a mindset toward discrimination," says Sanford Cloud, president of the National Conference for Community and Justice, which commissioned the survey along with the Bank of America.
The survey of more than 2,500 Americans is one of the broadest undertaken on this subject, and measures attitudes toward race, the elderly, poor people, homosexuals, and people of different religions. Several parts can be compared to a sweeping 1993 survey, including contact between races.
Over the past seven years, the country's different races have had more interaction with one another in the workplace, in schools and in their communities. The increased contact is partly a result of more integrated workplaces, but also because Americans are consciously reaching across ethnic lines.
"More and more people are making an effort to get to know people who are different," says Mr. Cloud. "This leads to more understanding of people's experiences, and it leads to respect."
In 1993, 67 percent of blacks said they had contact with other ethnic groups - now 82 percent say they do. The jump is also considerable for Hispanics, from 51 percent seven years ago to 66 percent today. The increase is up moderately for whites (from 81 to 87 percent) and only slightly for Asians (from 49 to 52 percent).
As contact increases, feelings of closeness among groups go up - but so does the perception that discrimination exists and that minority groups lack influence. Indeed, the survey found that Americans believe racial and religious tension is on the rise - a belief which may be born of greater awareness.
Whether in neighborhoods, relations with the police, at work, or in schools, fewer Americans were able to say there were no problems regarding intergroup tension. For instance, in 1993, 76 percent of those surveyed said there were no tensions in their neighborhoods, but only 62 percent say that today.
This year's survey measures experiences with prejudice for the first time, and the results show that, of all minority groups, blacks experience it most often.
Forty-two percent of blacks said they were discriminated against once during the past month , and 12 percent said it happened two or more times.
Asians rank second, with 31 percent saying they faced discrimination once in the past 30 days and 16 percent of Hispanics saying the same. Only 13 percent of whites said they experienced discrimination.
For minorities, shopping is where unfair treatment most frequently occurs. They complain of being followed around suspiciously or not being able to get the attention of sales clerks. For Asians, the No. 1 place of unfair treatment is restaurants.
Despite the influx of Hispanics in this country, the greatest polarization still exists between whites and blacks. The two races typically have opposing views on government, levels of discrimination, and equal opportunity. Interestingly, whites see themselves getting along best with Asians, while blacks say they have the best relations with Hispanics.
Among other findings is that people are least familiar with different religious groups. Most non-Muslims, for instance, simply don't know Muslims, and so they haven't formed opinions about them. Also, the poor and those unable to read are seen as facing a high level of discrimination.
Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Conflict and Violence, says that most people are simply not prepared to deal with differences. "Most people grow up in heterogenous neighborhoods, and go to school with people like themselves. It's hard to understand other people when you're in contact with people who are rubber stamps of yourself." Which is why activists such as Cloud urge more contact between different groups - especially when it's facilitated by moral figures such as religious leaders.
But while the contact is definitely a positive measure, "that alone doesn't stop bigotry," says Chip Berlet, who studies hate crimes at Political Research Associates in Somerville, Mass.
It's partly offset, he says, by an increased use of scapegoating by "mainstream politicians" and campaigns to portray blacks and others as demanding special rights "when they're demanding equal rights."
*Neil Irwin contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society