New evidence of racism is pricking the conscience of Americans, and some leaders say it is time to find out whether discrimination and racial violence are on the increase - and why. Eighteen years ago a national task force on racial violence, the Kerner Commission, studied the issue and concluded that racism in the United States, unless stemmed, would lead to two American societies - black and white, separate and unequal.
Political leaders around the country point out that the civil rights situation has improved in the US in the past 20 years. But a stubborn, more subtle racism persists, they say, occasionally producing violent incidents. In recent months, there have been a number of such events:
A black cadet at the Citadel military academy in South Carolina was harassed at bedside in the middle of the night by white students dressed like Ku Klux Klansmen.
In Philadelphia, black high school students beat a Cambodian student while onlookers cheered.
A Louisiana sheriff issued an order, later rescinded, that all young blacks found in ``white'' neighborhoods at night were to be stopped and questioned.
And on Dec. 20, Michael Griffith, a 23-year-old black, was beaten with a baseball bat before he attempted to flee a mob of white teen-agers in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens, New York City. As he crossed a busy highway, he was hit and killed by a car.
As ill feeling between whites and the minority community in the area continued in the wake of the incident, police patrols were tripled.
Meanwhile, some 15 black, Hispanic, and white students and two police officers held a ``rap'' session in a church to discuss ways of avoiding interracial trouble when the local high school reopens Monday following Christmas holidays.
Some civic leaders and civil rights activists say society has become complacent about discrimination against minorities; some point to tensions caused by economic hardship; others say that loss of federal programs and a pulling-back on civil rights issues by the Reagan administration's Justice Department have also frustrated minorities.
All say that now is the time to examine the issues, root out fears, and pull together before racism affects a new generation of Americans.
It is hard to determine whether incidents of racial violence are up, observers say, since few localities actually keep statistical information on incidents or report them to the US Justice Department.
New York Mayor Edward I. Koch of New York City has suggested a ``Kerner II'' commission to examine the problem of racism nationally.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been involved in some of the recent cases. It is looking into the Howard Beach case.
The US Commission on Civil Rights, which has been criticized in recent years as ineffective, Wednesday issued a statement on the Howard Beach situation, calling the incident ``repugnant.''
The statement, signed by commission chairman Clarence Pendleton, said: ``Once again we call upon federal, state, and local authorities to take the steps necessary to begin a nationwide effort to gather statistics on racially motivated violence in order to fully establish the dimension of this problem.'' Carl Holman of the National Urban Coalition says there is a lack of ``serious moral leadership'' at the national level on the topic of racism. Recent years have been ``a period of strong negative cues from the national level,'' he says.
Mr. Holman says national leaders have ``neatly turned the table,'' so that those complaining of racism are accused of ``whining or reverse racism.''
In an informal poll of black leaders around the country, Holman says, he found none who said racism has abated since 1968. Many said it had gone underground; many said it was worse. Nationally a large number of cities report an increase in racial incidents.
Karl Gross, field supervisor for Cleveland's community relations board, says the increase has been substantial. Most of the offenses, he notes, have been directed at people wanting to live in new neighborhoods, usually blacks wanting to move into white communities.
Mr. Gross says whites in communities like Howard Beach complain that local government doesn't care, that it doesn't respond when whites are victims of crimes by blacks. He says the cities must hear these residents out, even when their views are predjudiced and racist, and seek to develop solutions to their fears.
In Philadelphia there have been several incidents, including a firebombing of the home of an interracial couple and the beating of a Cambodian high school student by blacks.
Philadelphia District Attorney Ronald D. Castille says his office is seeking to send out a strong message that such incidents will not be tolerated.
``Mine is of more of the big stick approach,'' says Mr. Castille. He notes that a Pennsylvania law requires that, for crimes committed with ethnic intimidation involved, the normal criminal penalty be doubled.
But political and civic leaders say top US officials are not sending out tough messages about violations of people's civil rights. On the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour Tuesday, the Republican mayor of Indianopolis, William Hudnut, criticized the Justice Department policy as frustrating minorities by challenging affirmative-action programs.
Debra Burton-Wade of the Justice Department says such finger-pointing is incorrect - that the department vigorously investigates claims of racial violence.