Washington — Social unrest may be building in American cities. It's already high enough to make the US Conference of Mayors uneasy.
Rep. Henry S. Reuss (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, calls a new report by the conference ''alarming.'' Teen-age unemployment, the report says, is coinciding with falling federal funds to provide jobs. It gives a background for the dispute between White House and the Democratic majority of Congress over how to meet the recession.
Figures on unemployment among teenagers were released here by Representative Reuss and Mayor Helen Boosalis of Lincoln, Neb., president of the conference. Overall US unemployment is now 9 percent, but the burden falls more heavily on minority groups, particularly blacks. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate of blacks in central cities is more than 17 percent. And the unemployment of teen-age blacks is 46 percent.
This is a volatile element in metropolitan life: It took form in 1967 in 128 racial disorders in cities, including Newark, Boston, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Hartford. A year later there were 130 disturbances with serious damage in Detroit.
The Conference of Mayors says it will support a special fund for summer jobs this year, but replies in the survey indicate that 50,000 fewer teen-agers will find jobs this summer than last because of cuts in the Summer Youth Employment Program, funded by the US Department of Labor.
New York City shows the effect of curtailed funds for summer jobs. In the 14 -to-21 age group, New York will employ 5,750 fewer workers it is estimated.
After the racial disorders of the '60s, President Lyndon Johnson's National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders reported that racial tension lies under the surface in America. Three deeply held racial grievances, it said, were key in precipitating disorders: (1) police practices; (2) unemployment and under-employment; (3) inadequate housing.
President Reagan repeatedly emphasizes that the major goal in his economic recovery program is to make jobs.
The most encouraging development for blacks since the '60s has been in education. Black high school dropouts used to average 33 percent but declined in 1980 to 25 percent, and the percentage going to college rose from 35 percent to 42 percent.
The city group hardest hit by the current recession and the federal curtailment of funds is the unemployed urban teen-age minority, particularly blacks. Bernard E. Anderson, an economist at the Rockefeller Foundation, put it this way: ''It would be incorrect to say there was no improvement in the economic status of blacks. Some achieved notable progress, but such persons represented the minority. For the community as a whole the decade (1970-1980) was a standoff.''
President Reagan argues that real progress for minorities means improving the whole economy. Spokesmen for black groups say this isn't enough; they want affirmative action. Mr. Reagan told an NAACP audience last June that anyone who says he is against the poor and minority groups engaged ''in pure demagoguery.'' He also told them that ''Government is no longer the draft horse of minority progress.''