No backsliding on race

THIS week's indictments of 12 teen-agers in New York's Howard Beach community and seven people in Forsyth County, Ga., show that the United States will not backslide on the importance of better race relations. That is not to deny that combating racism remains a challenge in the US - and in many other societies, for that matter. Racist attitudes, regrettably, are often deeply ingrained. Just this week, for example, an incident believed to be race-related, involving a school bus, took place in a well-to-do Boston suburb. And there have been reported attacks against Arab-Americans, Asians, and other minorities in various parts of the US in past months.

Still, it is important to keep such isolated incidents, ugly as they are, in perspective. Racial occurrences are often used, by all parties to a dispute, to somehow identify patterns within entire communities and neighborhoods. It need hardly be added that they are often convenient episodes for news media eager for dramatic pictures and gripping headlines.

In New York, however, 12 white teens were indicted Tuesday over an incident in which a black man was killed. The victim, a construction worker, died after being struck by a car while fleeing the white youths. The black man and two companions had been stranded in the all-white Howard Beach section of Queens after their car broke down.

In Forsyth County, meanwhile, seven people were also indicted Tuesday in connection with an alleged attack on civil rights marchers demonstrating in the all-white county.

It is only appropriate that the legal process go forward in each case. Racially motivated attacks and violence must not be tolerated. Community leaders and public officials must take firm steps to calm community emotions arising out of such incidents, while working to ensure that future occurrences not take place.

In the New York case, it is instructive to note that the state-appointed special prosecutor has included representatives from all segments of the community, including the police and public officials, in his efforts to identify the assailants and the nature of the attack. In the Georgia situation, civil rights groups and county officials have been squabbling over the composition of a biracial commission designed to probe discrimination in the county, which has reportedly not had blacks living there since before World War I.

There is still a long way to go to end discrimination in the US, particularly discrimination in housing and jobs. But the latest round of indictments underscores the importance of not backtracking on the gains made so far.

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