More Americans of all races and ethnicities are forming relationships outside their own groups, resulting in a deeper appreciation of how discrimination affects others, a recent study found.

Nevertheless, bias against members of minority groups, especially blacks, continues, and there is a marked lack of understanding about religions other than a person's own, according to the National Conference for Community and Justice survey.

The study, released in May, found that contacts by members of other races with blacks had jumped from 67 to 82 percent since 1993, when the group conducted its first study of intergroup relations in America. In the same period, interaction with whites by other groups was up from 81 to 97 percent and contact by others with Asians increased from 49 to 52 percent.

For the purpose of the study, personal "contacts" included friendships, neighbors, co-workers, fellow churchgoers, school principals and teachers, police officers, and supervisors and subordinates at work. 

As such contact rises, the study went on, the percentage of people satisfied with how groups get along climbs, as does their feeling that intergroup relations are important. Personal contact with members of other racial and ethnic groups also results in a feeling of greater closeness, an increased perception of discrimination and the understanding that minority groups lack adequate influence in society.

In releasing the survey "Taking America's Pulse II," Sanford Cloud, president of NCCJ, said, "Today we have increased contact with one another, which is moving us forward, but we still see too much discrimination targeted against too many groups, just because they are different."

The study noted the tight grasp that bias and prejudice still have on many Americans, with 42 percent of the black respondents reporting they had experienced at least one incident of discrimination in a month and 12 percent noting they had suffered two or three such experiences

Other groups working to end racism and intolerance have noted the difficulty in just getting people to talk about these issues. Julie Heegaard, a program director for Interfaith Action for Racial Justice in Baltimore, said getting people to talk honestly and deeply about issues of race was tough but that once initiated, "it makes an enormous difference."

Heegaard's group coordinates Dialogue Action Circles, in which 15 people from various races and faiths come together for 6 weeks to examine their own understanding of racism and its divisive effects on community and personal friendships.

A number of the groups have continued to meet past the end of the official project and have formed meaningful friendships. "Once you do that," Heegaard noted, "it is such a refreshing feeling that people want to try and continue to do that."

Nevertheless, in a nation of rapidly diversifying populations, the report pointed to pockets of ignorance about minority faiths. When asked about their feelings of closeness, 36 percent of respondents said they did not know enough to form an opinion about Muslims.

"Across the nation, we need to build interfaith understanding and work to overcome this divide through interfaith dialogues and seminary programming," Cloud said.

The group committed to continue its own work in bringing seminarians of different faiths together, to join with religious leaders in a declaration that racism is a sin, and to work with corporate partner Bank of America in creating model leadership initiatives across the country.

The survey was a random telephone sample of 2,584 Americans of different races. The results from the various groups, including whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians and people of mixed races, were weighted according to their representation in the general population.

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