A more emotional topic than desegregation of the public schools is hard to find unless it is racial integration of the schools. Unfortunately, too many people confuse the two, and have difficulties in advancing either in practice.

Integration, the idea of blacks, whites and Hispanics living and working in close proximity and going to school together, at least in theory, sounds good. Certainly our public officials give lip service to integration as a desirable goal. In practice, however, they too often frustrate, delay or impede deliberate efforts to promote desegregation of schools, the prelude to integration. They openly oppose busing, rezoning and student reassignments introduced to achieve a unitary school system on the pretext that "desegregation is not the answer."

Of course, desegregation is not the answer to America's racial problems, but it is the remedy to purposeful racial segregation in that it brings blacks and whites together into a single school or system. Desegregation, therefore, is the beginning, not the end, of a process designed to move into integration. If the emotions of those who wish to perpetuate segregation are allowed to prevail, if public officials respond in a way that panders to the fears and prejudices of white adherents to a racially structured school system, then desegregation will fail and integration will be impossible.

One of the deep problems associated with the effort to desegregate schools, and underlying the resistance to integration, is that many whites object to any change in their life patterns. They define entire neighborhoods as "theirs" and latch on to majority white schools in increasingly black cities as their last refuge before fleeing. With unbridled tongues, they state their intentions to move away from black people should blacks "take over" by challenging the racial status quo.

In a real sense, segregation and isolation have taught white people and white children how to be ignorant, and how to distort and pervert the American principles of democratic education, legality and morality. They really believe that no law has validity that requires them to give up their self-proclaimed superior status in a community. They cling to their deceptive isolation all the while judging others to be mediocre or undeserving of the privileges they seek to preserve for themselves. Their racial prejudice leads them to the delusion that all whites, no matter what their real status, came from 100 percent high-class homes and that others are dangerous to associate and go to school with. Thus, segregation, whatever the qualitative similarities in facilities or services to a particular school or community, perpetuates caste as the overriding and major focus of life.

An NAACP attorney, in explaining our efforts to dismantle racially organized schools, where whites seek to impose their racism on black children, said that "one does not feed sugar to a cavity." In other words, we may not offer whites who are opposed to desegregation sugar-coated encouragement by assuring them that their cause is just but the laws are wrong. That kind of bland apology for pursuing desegregation only accommodates the basest prejudices of the resisters: it does not offer anything more than palliatives and fuel for open resistance. Ultimately, it precludes the attainment of a truly integrated society where racism is eliminated root and branch.

There are good and compelling reasons for insisting on desegregation and pursuing integrated education. Elimination of the system of racial caste is central and fundamental to any genuinely democratic society. Rejecting the pernicious normative racist behavior of public institutions and officials is of paramount interest to a society concerned with freedom and justice. Freeing our people, black and white, of superstitious about one another should not be only a legal assignment but also a moral imperative in a society that respects equality. Moreover, we pursue desegregation because there can be no compromise with racism.

Racism is a complex, difficult, tenacious reality in American life that requires an enormous commitment of will, energy and resources to overcome. Fortunately, there are increasing numbers of people, black and white, in and out of government, who are working toward this end. The purpose of this struggle is a single, truly egalitarian society, which will never be achieved if we cooperate with racism's conventions.

No informed citizen can respect fraudulent appeals for "neighborhood schools" that promise merely to reflect and perpetuate racial divisions in society. Desegregation is the way out, the core of a program for the enrichment of our nation.