BOSTON — RECENT racial incidents in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn and in Virginia Beach, Va., are reminders of how far the nation still must go to achieve racial harmony and equality. Civil-rights leaders and academics who closely follow black progress insist such incidents are not a ``resurgence'' of racism but an occasional eruption of a racism allowed to persist too long. ``There are times when it has been more covert than overt,'' says Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Yet many civil-rights advocates say they also sense a new climate of greater public tolerance of once unacceptable antiblack remarks and behavior. Racial epithets used in recent rock music lyrics are cited as an example. Many blacks blame national leaders for not supporting civil-rights and decrying prejudice more forcefully.
``There's been a distinct change in the public mood,'' says Billy Tidwell, research director of the National Urban League. ``It's been fostered in large part by leaders of the last administration. Rather than furthering affirmative action and similar initiatives, they launched an orchestrated assault against them.''
Douglas Massey, a University of Chicago sociologist, says society's divisions are ones of race and class that interact in complex ways. ``Large segments of the white population feel economically threatened, turning to blacks partially as a scapegoat for their frustrations,'' he says.
Adds Northwestern University sociologist Aldon Morris: ``As a black person and a sociologist, what I sense now is that the black community is feeling under siege, feeling hostility directed at them just because they're black.'' The basic problem, he says, is one of structural conditions.
Indeed, blacks have had to search hard recently to find any cheering news.
A July study by the National Research Council found that blacks had made important economic and social gains in the last five decades; yet since the early 1970s, blacks have stagnated or regressed when compared with whites in housing, educational opportunity, and income.
An August National Urban League study found that the gap between black and white progress in income, employment, and education has widened since 1967.
A recent demographic study published by the University of Chicago concluded that residential segregation is much more pronounced and entrenched than previous studies suggest.
Four recent Supreme Court rulings, interpreted by most blacks as eroding past civil-rights gains, are also viewed as discouraging. ``I wouldn't mind if the justices were stand-patters, but they're go-backers,'' says Dr. Hooks. ``If they'd stood pat, we'd at least have had the victories of the past. ... They have with relish been tearing up the fabric of what has brought America together over the last 20 years.''
To protest the rulings, the NAACP chief led a silent march, that drew 75,000 to 100,000 supporters, in Washington on Aug. 26. His office is at work on new legislation aimed at giving the Supreme Court a sound legal basis for reversing recent decisions.
A pattern of racial isolation, and the stereotyping that follows it, runs through both the recent New York and Virginia incidents.
In the Italian-American neighborhood of Bensonhurst, a 16-year-old black, shopping for a used car, was shot dead Aug. 23 by white youths.
Since then blacks and others have led at least eight marches of protest through Bensonhurst. Much of the early heckling of marchers by residents has subsided. Brooklyn Assemblyman Frank Barbaro and a number of young people walked the streets before one set of recent marches, urging calm.
``People were really looking for someone to tell them not to engage in racial insults - they just needed someone to tell them to do the right thing,'' he says.
In Virginia Beach, greater sensitivity to racial differences might also have helped. City leaders felt that the annual Labor Day gathering of college-age students, largely black, was becoming too large and unwieldy. The community tried to discourage students from coming, partly by adopting tight rules such as those used in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The scene turned violent as the National Guard moved in and some students turned to looting.
The local NAACP and a number of other organizations had offered Virginia Beach advance coordination, but city officials apparently preferred to proceed with their own plans. It was that lack of sensitivity to the fact that they were not just dealing with students - but with black students who might suspect racial motives - which exacerbated the problem, the NAACP's Hooks says.
``It was like someone drawing a line and challenging you to step over it,'' he says. ``Black folk in this country are determined not to be put back where they came from. We're not going to participate in our own execution.''
What can be done? Ultimately, the problems of housing segregation and economic disparity must be dealt with. Stronger national leadership, civil-rights advocates say, is vital both to develop policies for such structural change and to improve the nation's racial climate over the short term. President Bush is generally viewed as an improvement over former President Reagan, but many advocates say he has not become a vigorous enough champion of minorities.
``Civil rights simply isn't going forward,'' says Dr. Massey.
A more determined effort to communicate and develop exchanges between otherwise isolated black and white communities could also help, civil-rights advocates insist. Some exchanges of clergy and sports teams have already begun in Bensonhurst. More avenues for contact are under study.
``I think maybe the whole country could use a course on race relations,'' says Gerald Jaynes, a Yale University economist who directed the National Research Council study.
Marches, like those in the '60s that spurred much of the nation's civil-rights legislation, are seen as another way to emphasize the need for racial harmony and equality. Local marches, such as those in Bensonhurst, can be effective, advocates say, in making the point that no neighborhood should be off limits to blacks. But marches such as those, which remain under strong police protection, may not prove much; marches that are interracial and involve some residents of the community usually make the point most clearly, says Hooks.
Still, many Americans are eager to see the nation's racial divisions healed without such prompting. ``There are still a great many white people out there of goodwill who understand the situation and are tired of the conflict,'' says Robin M. Williams Jr., Cornell University professor emeritus of social science. One encouraging sign, cited by many civil-rights advocates: New York City mayoral candidate David Dinkins's win of one-third of the white vote in the Democratic primary earlier this month.