America never was America for me. But by this oath I swear, America will be. -Langston Hughes ``I would start with equality,'' says Rachar Bilal, in response to a question about how to improve the overall condition of blacks in America.
``Whether we want to face it or not, for blacks the country is still run along racial lines.'' Mr. Bilal is a black counselor at a drug rehabilitation center in Los Angeles. ``I believe that the slave master has never wanted the slave to become his equal. But I also believe that with equality we have a fair chance.''
It is equality that blacks have a right to, Bilal maintains - not handouts.
``We have to offer something to our own community,'' he says. ``We can't keep crying the same cry. We can't depend on the system to do for us what we need to do for ourselves.'' Black Americans: a separate history
It has been 124 years since the Emancipation Proclamation freed African slaves in the US. Yet for many black Americans, especially the more than 7 million who are poor, true equality remains to be won.
What stands in the way of equality for blacks in America - equal education, equal job opportunities, equal treatment under the law and in human relations, equal status in society?
The history of black Americans is profoundly different from that of all other ethnic groups, who came to this country voluntarily and were never subjected to the inhumanity of ownership by others. But why hasn't more than a century as ``free'' men and women erased the effects of slavery? Why hasn't civil rights legislation ensured that blacks are treated equally? Why does one-third of the black community live below the poverty line? Eight months of research, three months spent in four inner cities, countless interviews with blacks at all social and educational levels, all point to an answer that any black person could have given right away: racism.
Most experts, black and white, agree it is racism that underlies the major social and economic problems affecting the black community. It is racism that has segregated many blacks in inner-city ghettos; it is racism that is responsible for the inadequate schools, housing, and job opportunities there. And the effects of racism can appear in blacks as low self-esteem, bitterness, or alienation.
An avalanche of studies and media reports analyzing inner-city poverty has poured forth over the decades. One effect of this emphasis on the ``pathologies of the poor'' has been to reinforce negative, stereotypical images of black Americans in public thought, and even to attach blame to poor blacks for their problems.
Why search high and low for the cause of black poverty? many blacks ask. The answer, they say, is simple. Because of racism, poor blacks are being denied the basic building blocks of a stable, socially productive life. The unconscious suspicion that blacks are intrinsically inferior persists - even sometimes on the part of blacks. Though rarely articulated and more subtle than it once was, racism is denying many blacks the basic rights and opportunities other Americans enjoy. Slavery's legacy remains
Nicholas Lemann, writing recently in The Atlantic about life in the ghetto, concluded, ``The single overriding factor in the creation of the American ghettos is racial prejudice.'' He believes this factor still prevails.
The subconscious attitude of many whites toward black Americans is a legacy of slavery, says Andrew Billingsley, a professor of sociology and Afro-American studies at the University of Maryland.
``Slavery was disastrous for whites as well as blacks, and for the relationships between people in this country,'' says Dr. Billingsley. ``It established the pattern that says that white people are better, that they have more rights and are entitled to more income and more status than blacks. The pattern says it's OK to suppress black people, to keep them from the good jobs and the good schools. Then when they don't do well as a result of this treatment, we blame them.''
It may come as a surprise to whites when blacks in 1986 speak of ``slave masters.'' But experts point out that whites, for obvious reasons, are much less aware of racism than blacks.
Racism can be as large-scale as the ``white flight'' to comfortable suburbs, while blacks remain in the blighted, shabby, economically dead inner cities. Or it can be as small-scale as the sneer of a saleslady in a department store. Subtle forms of racism
``Discrimination is still strong, in so many little subtle things that are done to you day by day,'' says Gloria Cherry, a black accountant in Detroit. ``Two people can be in a department store, waiting for a salesperson. You could be first in line, but if there's a white person behind you the saleslady will try to ignore you, step around you and say to the white person, `Step up here please, Ma'am.'''
``Day by day, little by little, you swallow it,'' says Mrs. Cherry. ``Sometimes you speak up, sometimes you hold it in or turn the other cheek. But it builds up. A lot of times it doesn't come out right then in the store; it may not come out right with the employer; it may not come out with whomever you're talking to, when you're explaining why you're delinquent in your payment and they're being - oh, so nasty. A lot of times we turn around and take it out on those closest to us. The anger that we've held in, we take it out on our neighbors and our families.''
Calculated segregation may be illegal in the United States today, but separation of the races is still very prevalent, according to Lynn Burbridge, an economist at the Urban Institute. ``Housing segregation is almost as bad as it has been in the past, and that certainly is a racially motivated statistic,'' Ms. Burbridge says.
Although many blacks have achieved better conditions - better housing and professional careers - communication between the races rarely reaches beyond the workplace. Distance and alienation foster distrust and indifference. Until understanding, mutual respect, and caring dissolve the stereotypes and prejudices that keep people apart, America will never truly be America for anyone.