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Black-White Divide Appears to Be Widening

October 11, 1994|SAM FULWOOD III | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Joe Melsha, a 33-year-old office manager for a heating and cooling company in Iowa, appears to be the voice of a new American majority.

And the sentiments he imparts clearly are getting the attention of legislators and politicians: Government efforts to improve the lot of minorities in the country have "gone too far."

"I mean, I'm not a racist and I'm not going to go out and shoot anybody, but I don't think (black Americans) deserve all the special programs that are offered to them," Melsha said.

"All the special programs (the government has are) for everybody except the white male. I don't think it's right that they say you have to have so many blacks or so many women or so many Hispanics working in different factories."

While a minority of whites have long expressed opposition to affirmative action and special programs aimed at helping blacks, recent polls indicate that that view is now held by a majority of white Americans.

At a time when they view their own economic futures with uncertainty, experts say, the nation's "haves"--especially the white middle class--say they are increasingly less willing to help those farther down the socioeconomic ladder. The feelings are harbored not so much out of animus toward blacks as a concern that opportunities are lessening for everyone and only so many can succeed.

As a result, black and white Americans are glaring at each other across a racial divide that once promised to narrow but now appears to be widening. While whites have become more protective of their own status, blacks increasingly despair of ever achieving real equality.

The result, experts say, is that politicians--sensitive to the moods of the largest blocs of voters--may respond by rolling back government social programs. Specifically, they say, the fears are likely to fuel campaigns by politicians pledging to end welfare programs, eliminate health care benefits for the poor and repeal anti-discrimination laws.

"Congress will come back in January as a more conservative body, and that does not augur well for universal health care with protections for the poor and black segments of the population, nor does it speak well for the kind of meaningful civil rights protections that we feel are needed," said Wade Henderson, Washington director for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

"The same is likely to be true for welfare reform, as we expect Congress will be urged by their constituents to adopt a plan that is punitive against the most helpless segments of our society."

At the root of the problem, numerous recent surveys suggest, is a deep sense among whites that black Americans are getting breaks--in employment opportunities, education benefits and government programs--that are enabling them to surpass the living standards of whites.

"A lot of white people see that one in seven blacks have household income at $50,000 or above and conclude that too many black people are doing well," said Bill Boyd, a fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center of the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "That's when white people seem to make the illogical leap. They think everybody is equal and point to those black people doing well and say, therefore, we don't need to do any more to help any black people."

Boyd, who is studying the relationship between public opinion and the social gains of black Americans during the past 40 years, notes that the feelings are not unlike those that arose during the peak of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, when whites felt threatened by black advancement, he says.

Boyd's studies also suggest that a white backlash against the Great Society programs of the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration ultimately helped lead to the election of Ronald Reagan.

"The facts don't mean a thing in opinion polling, and that's what makes black people feel all the more uneasy about this current mood of the nation," said Boyd, who is black. "They know that polls drive policy."

But while responding to anti-black sentiments may get some politicians elected, the strategy could be shortsighted, says Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), who often speaks about the need for white Americans to embrace programs intended to assist black Americans.

"The economic future of the children of white Americans will increasingly depend on the talents of nonwhite Americans," he said in an interview. "To the extent those talents are not developed, the prospects of all Americans, including whites, will be diminished. That's not ideology or polling. That is demographics." But that message appears unpersuasive to large numbers of whites.

Tom Wicker, the retired New York Times columnist, said that in the course of writing a book on the fate of racial integration in American society he has noticed a sense of creeping frustration among whites toward blacks' social gains.

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