During this year, which was designated as a time for a national dialogue on race problems by President Clinton, I talked to scores of people - journalists, clergy, physicians. I talked to scores of retirees, shopkeepers, factory workers, educators and social service workers - black and white. Mainly, I was interested in how they felt about the press' ability to influence readers' feelings about race, but often our conversations went well beyond that.
Some of what I heard was very discouraging. The mayor of a Texas city told me she refused to read beyond the first installment of a landmark series on race relations published by her city's newspaper. She said the opening story exaggerated the problem. And in Westminster, Md., the monthlong publication last year of an award-winning series on ``The Black Experience'' by the town's newspaper was followed by a volley of racist, hateful and anonymous comments phoned in to the paper's ``Hotline'' column.
But for every closed-minded mayor and intolerant reader, there were dozens of hopeful signs - from blacks and whites and from all parts of the country.
In Akron, the Beacon Journal followed its Pulitzer Prize-winning 1993 series on race relations by supporting the founding of a citizens group called Coming Together. Pledged to improving the racial climate in Akron, Coming Together has succeeded in bringing the races together for a series of events ranging from church picnics to cultural activities - and now has moved on to finding summer jobs for minority youth in white-owned businesses.
But no one impressed me more than Rhoda Faust, the 49-year-old owner of the Maple Street Bookstore in New Orleans.
Faust, who is white, had become angry in 1993 after reading a racist letter in the Times-Picayune reacting to the newspaper's award-winning series on race titled ``Together Apart: The Myth of Race.'' So Faust wrote a letter of her own, which drew a friendly response from a black woman, Brenda Thompson - and a month later the two founded ERACE, a nonprofit citizens' group dedicated to curbing racism.
Four years later, ERACE, with a mailing list of 870, has distributed tens of thousands of bumper stickers saying ``Eracism . . . all colors with love and respect,'' established a twice-weekly citizens forum on race in the city library and spread its message of racial harmony by using everything from jewelry and T-shirts to appearances by Faust on talk shows and in university classrooms. Today, she is convinced that ``a lot of the white hatred would be dissolved if white people only knew some black people.''
And that, I suspect, is what the President's yearlong dialogue on race is all about: blacks and whites talking to each other and getting to know one another.
It may well prove to be an impossible dream, but I ended my two-week, cross-country journey feeling better about things. You can't help feeling a twinge of optimism after talking to people like Faust and Thompson. Each has stared racism in the eye, and neither woman blinked. Reminds me a little of my dad, driving into the night looking for that motel on U.S. 301 without the ``no coloreds'' sign. The visible signs of segregation and bigotry are mostly down now, but the hidden, ingrained remnants of racism are still very much with us. Maybe spending a year examining the symptoms will lead us to the cure. It's a journey worth taking.
Terry Dalton is an associate professor of English and journalism at Western Maryland College.