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A reshaping of attitudes

As another Black History Month comes to a close, you can almost hear the sigh.

It is from frustration, and a bit of resignation.

Frustration that there is still a need to set aside a period to study black history because it's not routinely done the rest of the year.

Resignation because that need will still be there next year, and the year after that, and the decade after that.

So the end of Black History Month, naturally, causes some assessing, since obviously, from the lingering need for it, we have not gone as far as we need to go.

True, the civil rights efforts of the '50s, '60s and '70s accomplished what needed to be done legislatively. No one is routinely arrested now because he or she walks into a place reserved for people of a different color. No one is required to translate Latin phrases in order to say _ by punching a hole in a ballot _ who he wants to speak for him.

But there is still the barrier that legislation could not touch. That is the one dictated by attitudes, by what we're taught _ blatantly and subliminally _ as children.

Those teachings form the foundations for the biases that shape our decisions for a lifetime. They contribute to our choices of who we'll hire, fire and promote, who we want our neighbors to be, even who gets prison and who gets a break. If we are to progress beyond the point where our world is shaped by such decisions, we must take steps to reshape the attitudes that produce them. That must be the focus of the civil rights movement of the '90s.

It is not a struggle of economics, as the civil rights community decided in the aftermath of monumental legislative victories. The black economic posture is a consequence of America's collectively negative attitude toward black people more than it is a cause of that attitude.

Much media attention has been given recently to the dilemma of black men and women who have successfully reached the economic middle class or beyond only to find they have not escaped the grasp of those race-based judgments.

When my generation went to school in the '50s and '60s, those attitudes were not concealed or denied. So when our teachers in our segregated schools told us we had to be twice as good to get half as far, we didn't question them. Teachers were supposed to know what they were talking about.

And our lives told us the same thing. We didn't have to look far to see that opportunities were not doled out with fairness. We couldn't even use the public library, for instance.

So when our teachers told us that, we didn't need to question them. We just believed it.

Children today are at a slightly different place. Comprehensive research, published in the book A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society, shows that white support for the principle of racial equality has grown steadily from the 1940s into the 1980s (the study was published in 1989).

But the same pattern was not observed in white support for specific plans to reach that goal. They support the philosophy but not the reality.

That puts children in an environment where equality is preached but the religion isn't practiced. Tell them they have to be twice as good _ still not much of an exaggeration _ and they ask why.

There isn't a good answer for them.

And until there is, we need to dedicate ourselves to achieving a world where they will never need to ask. That means picking up our suitcases and resuming the trek to the place Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about, where we won't be judged _ by others or ourselves _ by the color of our skin but by the content of our character.

We won't get there by running to the bank, by simply making as much money as you can.

We need to change those factors that shape attitudes. The first step is to rewrite school textbooks, not to make anyone feel good, as opponents charge, but to make them tell the truth.

Few things influence us more than a good teacher with a good text.

Give both of them enough truth and maybe one day we'll find no reason to have Black History Month. Then we can all breathe a sigh _ of relief.

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