TAMPA, Fla. -- At 7 o'clock on Friday nights, 190,000 households in the Tampa region can turn on their TV sets and watch talk-show host Herbert Poinsett talk about why he believes white people are better than black people.
In his weekly television series, "Race & Reason," the affable Mr. Poinsett suggests that American blacks, excepting the elderly or ill, be "relocated" to Africa.
"Unless whites face up to the reality that racial separatism is the only answer, there's going to be more and more trouble," says Mr. Poinsett, a retired chiropractor who uses a strident German marching song as theme music for his call-in show.
"It's getting darker and darker out there," he said. "It's just insane."
Hate, it seems, has gone high-tech, reaching out to more and more Americans through cable TV, radio, telephone hot lines and computer bulletin boards.
Hate programming that denigrates blacks and Jews has surged to new levels, appearing on cable television in 24 of the nation's top 100 markets, according to a new report by the Anti-Defamation League. But there are no reliable statistics on how many people watch such programs.
Such programming, which appears on virtually censor-free public access channels, has not yet shown up in Maryland.
At a tender time when Americans are struggling to understand the many differences among themselves, Mr. Poinsett seems to be finding the ground especially fertile for sowing his brand of prejudice.
"Conditions that lead to fear, mistrust and hate are more prevalent, generally. There are a lot of people out there who are frightened," said Robert Purvis, legal director of the Baltimore-based National Institute Against Prejudice & Violence. "It's a very confusing time to be an American. Heck, we can't even agree on what being an American is anymore.
"Bottom line: We're in a dangerous period."
"I used not to be prejudiced," said a white man who called in recently to Mr. Poinsett's show. "But the more I learn, the more prejudiced I become. You have no choice."
"This country is going to hell and there's a reason for it. In today's society, you have no choice but to be afraid. It's not in the nature of whites to rise up, but when they rise up, we're going to squash 'em. Man, they're all animals."
A year ago, alarmed by expressions of hatred worldwide, human rights leaders from around the globe held a conference on hate in Norway. In the United States in January, the FBI, for the first time, began collecting data on hate crimes. Local crime surveys and anecdotal evidence suggest that hate crimes are on the rise in Maryland and nationwide.
This fall, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a leading civil rights organization, will begin distributing a program called "Teaching Tolerance" to 250,000 teachers, the most extensive outreach to schools since the center was founded 20 years ago.
And, across the country, national and local human rights organizations are rushing to design counter-programming to shows such as Mr. Poinsett's "Race & Reason," which is shown four times a week over Jones Intercable public access channels. Tampa's public access center produces 60 weekly series, including "Racism and Sensitivity to Minorities," "Ethnic Entrepreneurs," and "Awake, Oh Israel!"
Many observers of the American scene -- historians, sociologists, psychologists and human rights workers -- suggest that racial and ethnic tensions are at a flash point. The reasons, they say, are varied. Among them: economic turmoil, continuing waves of new immigrants, absence of strong disapproval of racism by national political and religious leaders, a backlash against the gay and civil rights movements.
"It's really not surprising that you have [some] people -- Protestants, Catholics, or Jews -- who attack gays, for example, and attack people who are pro-choice," said Bill D'Antonio, executive director of the American Sociological Association. "They don't see themselves as hate-filled bigots, but as defenders of society.
"They are not motivated by hatred, as they see it, but by the desire to protect the fabric of society. That's why they can say: I don't hate Jews or I don't hate gays. Look, times are changing. Modern society puts us in much larger contact with diverse peoples. Today, you get the feeling that different people are all around you. In fact, these people are all around you. People feel threatened."
The FBI has estimated that fewer than 500,000 hate crimes occur each year. The first national crime survey on hate activity won't be made public until next year.
The most frequent victims of hate violence are blacks, Hispanics, Southeast Asians, Jews and gay people. Of all of those, homosexuals are believed to be the most harassed.
Maryland, which in 1981 became the first state to enact legislation requiring the collection of data on hate crimes, received 1,190 reports of racial, religious and ethnic incidents in 1990, and verified 792 of them.
In 1989, there were 686 reported incidents. At the time, Maryland State Police did not have a mechanism for verifying the incidents. Maryland Commission on Human Relations spokeswoman Frannie Friedman noted that reporting procedures changed between 1989 and 1990, and cautioned against making comparisons between the two years. Still, Maryland officials believe that there was an increase.
"Hate crime is just the tip of the iceberg," said Eugene Morrell, executive director of the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations, which documented 550 hate crimes in 1990, up from 378 the year before. "It is a reflection of feelings by large numbers of people who don't act out in a criminal way.
"People are generally a lot more tense about life here and life in the world," he added. "You see sources of tension all over the place: People are angry with each other. They talk harshly. They drive erratically. People simply have a hard time getting along with one another. Short-term, we're looking for better law enforcement. Long-term, people have to learn to live with each other."
Los Angeles County seems to offer a microcosm of the changing human condition in much of the United States: Its population has grown from 3 million to 9 million since 1940, and its residents represent a broad mix of diverse races, cultures and ethnic backgrounds. The makeup of neighborhoods has changed dramatically over that period, and so has the ever-tightening job market.
"There seems to be a declining level of civility in our society," Mr. Morrell said. "People are afraid and they are more openly expressing their hostility."
"My mother is white and my father is black," a young girl tells Mr. Poinsett. "Well, that's too bad," he tells her. "You're a mixed race. You're confused. You're the beginning of the end."
The girl: "No matter what you say the world will never be the way you want it. You are a horrible example of white people." Mr. Poinsett: "I am an example of truth, justice and equality."
The day after Emmanuel Cleaver was sworn in as the first black mayor of Kansas City, Mo., in April, a white supremacist group called the Nationalist Party went to the local cable TV public access center and announced its intention to produce a TV show aimed at unseating him.
"I frankly think hate TV is moving this nation further and further away from a solution to its racial problems," said the 46-year-old Mr. Cleaver. "When you plant seeds in an environment such as the one we have in this country, some of those seeds are bound to germinate and bring forth fruit, albeit bitter fruit."
There are nearly 2,000 public access channels on TV cable systems in the United States, up from 1,021 in 1987, according to the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers. Public access provides mostly local programming, which is protected by federal law from censorship unless it is obscene.
In 1988, the Kansas City Council took its public access channel off the air rather than permit the Ku Klux Klan to broadcast a program. Thirteen months later, it restored the channel after the city decided it could not legally defend its action.
The dilemma that such programming poses has surfaced in cities from East Peoria, Ill. to Austin, Texas, and from New Haven, Conn., to Torrance, Calif. In the past couple of months, Pittsburgh Community Television has been embroiled in controversy over its recent airing of "Race & Reason," this version produced by white supremacist Tom Metzger, a former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan from California.
"We're simply trying to even things up a bit for white working-class people," said Mr. Metzger, the elder statesman of the white supremacy movement. His shows have been broadcast around the country for seven years.
"Slowly, we are building our constituency. This has been a good way to promote our ideas to racially conscious whites. We're particularly thrilled to be watched by young people," added the 52-year-old TV repairman.
A Portland, Ore., jury issued a $12.5 million judgment against Mr. Metzger last October for inciting two skinheads who killed an Ethiopian immigrant in 1988.
"Our day will come," he says.
"Blacks aren't all bad," a Puerto Rican woman tells Mr. Poinsett. You really make me want to cry. My husband is black. You talk so bad about black people it just makes me sick. My husband works hard for me and my family. I wish something positive would come out of your mouth. But I respect your opinion. I hope maybe one day God will touch your soul and your opinion will change."
There is a growing chorus of opinion that unless strong national political, religious and business leadership rises up against racism, then the stage will be set for a racial drama that has not been played out in this country in decades.
"If we don't get some national leadership on this issue, I think we will have fanned the flames of racial intolerance to a point where we could see the kind of racial division that has not been prevalent in our country in 30 years," said Mr. Cleaver.
"We are schizophrenic on the race question. We issue proclamations about how we want harmony, and at the same time we fight civil rights legislation from the White House. There is a receptive public, and that public has been stirred up over last two decades with suggestions that blacks are taking jobs from whites," he said. "A lot of people are out of jobs. When people are hurting, they need somebody to blame, and the minorities have been convenient."
In Montgomery, Ala., lawyer Morris Dees, who founded the Southern Poverty Law Center, was blunt: "There is potential for great racial violence in America. There are real problems: whites who feel blacks have had enough [gains], and blacks who look around them and think, 'This is not what the civil rights movement promised us.' And you've got militants on both sides."
At Smith College in Massachusetts, which was the setting in 1989 for controversial campus hate activity, social psychologist Fletcher Blanchard has paid close attention to the increase in what he calls "horribly offensive acts of hatred."
National leaders, he said, have created an environment in which people feel free to openly express their hostility.
"People are acting out and others are listening. There are many who want to do the right thing," he said. "But almost tragically, they haven't developed the social skills to support those good intentions. What white person in this country ever had anybody turn to them and be asked to act as a spokesman for all whites?
"It happens to blacks all the time," said Dr. Blanchard, who is white. "Racism is white folks' problem, and whites ought to take responsibility for eradicating it. We can do that by talking to friends, criticizing behavior or praising it. I think if regular people do it, then national leaders will follow."