The nation's infant death rate among blacks remains stuck at unacceptably high levels that prevailed 20 years ago, says the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation.

The group warned Wednesday the infant death rate for whites and blacks has shown little improvement. At the current pace, the country will fall short of its goal of reducing the rate to seven in 1,000 births by the year 2000, said Dr. Reed Tuckson, the foundation's senior vice president for programs.The comments came after the government announced the infant death rate in 1988 was 10 per 1,000 births, a 1 percent drop from the previous year. There were 38,910 deaths of infants under 1 year of age in 1988.

Tuckson said President Bush should go ahead with recommendations from an unreleased White House report urging expansion of Medicaid and more money for community health centers.

The White House task force report also recommends stepped-up federal efforts to reduce smoking, drinking and drug abuse during pregnancy, Tuckson said.

"Babies are dying while a prescription for helping them sits on a shelf," said Tuckson.

There is a sharp difference between the infant death rate for whites and blacks.

The rate for white infants was 8.5 per 1,000 births in 1988 while for black infants it was 17.6.

Tuckson said the black infant death rate today is nearly equal to the white infant death rate in 1970. The death rate for black infants historically has been more than twice the rate for whites.

The government also reported on other mortality data for 1988. It said the national death rate from AIDS rose 20 percent in 1988, making it the 15th leading cause of death in the country.

The death rate for homicide also went up in 1988, while the decline of recent years in mortality from heart disease and stroke continued, reported the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control.