AN UNPAID BILL

If you read English, then please pay your telephone bill. If you speak Spanish, pay up or else, says Sprint, the long distance telephone company.

That is the message of a Sprint ''reminder'' that came in the mail last month. Printed in English and Spanish, the two versions say two very different things.In English, it asks, ''Please mail payment immediately.'' Then it adds, ''Thank you for using Sprint. As a customer, you are Sprint's No. 1 priority.''

The Spanish says, ''Su pago debera ser recibido a mas tardar en Marzo 31, 1998, de lo contrario, su servicio sera deconectado.'' Translation: Pay by March 31, or you'll be cut off. No such threat or deadline appears in English. Conversely, there is none of that sweet talk about customers being Sprint's No. 1 priority for Spanish-speakers to read. What is this, other than outright discrimination? That's what I wanted to know when I called Sprint customer service - after I put my check in the mail, of course.

A Sprint representative said someone would get back to me in 24 to 48 hours with an answer. No one did. Maybe they misplaced my number. Several days later, I described the problem to a second Sprint agent, who put me on hold for a long time, with recorded music. I don't understand Sprint, whose services I have used for many years, or the mind of the monster who created this bilingual brutality. You remember this company. It's the one with the ''dime lady,'' the dropping pin and claims about clarity.

It is even harder to understand the reaction of a lawyer in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston when I dropped a dime on the dime lady. Maybe they should have written a better letter, he said. That was before he decided to forward this reminder of racism to the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in Washington.

For those of you who don't get it, let me spell it out.

The big problem is what the letter implies, that Sprint may be pursuing separate collection practices based on ethnicity. Is the company disconnecting Hispanic Americans faster than non-Latinos? It should be someone's priority to find out.

Even more interesting is the range of reactions that you get when you describe this discriminatory document from Sprint. For some, it is almost as if there is a mental disconnect, while others hear the voice of injustice loud and clear.

''If I read it, I would be very offended,'' said Francisco Villalobos, an official at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, a state agency in the jurisdiction where I live.

''It's mind-boggling,'' said Jess Hordes, Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, who also happens to be a Sprint customer. ''What's so startling about this is that in this day and age, a company that size dealing with communications is so blatant in its discrimination.''

Turn up the happy music, Sprint. You may be hearing from them, too.

But then, there are others who don't seem surprised or even interested like the officials at the Latino Civil Rights Task Force, a nonprofit group, also in Washington.

''If we hear anything like that we'll give you a call,'' says a woman answering the phone before taking my number, reluctantly.

What if she's right? After all, why be bothered about a little phone bill? For that matter, why be worried about a water fountain or a lunch counter, or a seat on a bus?

Thirty years after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., what does any of it still mean? To me, it means that America and its divisions have changed. We are split less into black and white, English-speaking and Latinos, and more into those who see racial bias and those who do not.

We have entered a new era when discrimination is computer-generated and sent robotically to millions of homes. A new age when we can stonewall with machines if we have no excuses to make. It is a new day when we claim that injustice is too old to be redressed by affirmative action anymore. A new epoch when the economy has freed us from responsibility by producing minimum-wage jobs.

This is a kind of liberation that no one dared to dream, 30 years after Martin Luther King. It is different, it is new but it is not a brighter day. Perhaps it is the future for a society that has not paid its bill.

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