WASHINGTON — A more complicated picture of the high-profile church arson story is emerging - one showing black congregations as only the most visible victims of violence.
After weeks of headlines and photos of charred edifices, President Clinton signed the Church Arson Prevention Act last week, making it easier to prosecute culprits. But studies of insurance records, FBI reports, and local police records show that not only has arson, including church arson, dropped significantly since 1986, but in many states more white than black churches have been torched of late.
The new numbers - 75 white burnings and 73 black since 1995, according to two analyses - are threatening to set off a sensitive racial debate over a series of events already painful enough for the victims, regardless of color.
Critics say the focus on black churches is turning a small problem into an overblown and self-serving "myth" about racism. Civil rights groups and the media are colluding to falsely spin the fiery issue into a replay of the horrific Klan-coordinated burnings of the 1960s, they say.
On the other side, black and civil rights leaders assert that the statistics are deceptive. They say the numbers are themselves being used to "cover up" and "deny" racial motives behind some 40 black church burnings since January. Since there are some six times more white places of worship than predominantly black ones, the statistics are misleading, this side says - especially since arson against white churches tends not to be a racial act.
The result of this new information is that the motives behind the church arsons are getting fuzzier, not clearer. One reason is that until the recent spate of black burnings, which captured media attention, neither federal agencies or fire-protection groups tracked arson along racial lines.
"We are still trying to get a handle on the scope of this problem," says one administration official who works with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Until the black fires hit the press, we didn't know how extensive these arsons were."
Last week, the Justice Department claimed 243 arsons since 1990, both white and black; this week the department plans to revise the figure to 297, sources say. An Associate Press survey found 409 burnings. In Texas, according to USA Today, there were 20 fires involving white churches; 11 involving black since 1995.
Moreover, the limited number of arrest profiles and motives for black church burning show a diverse picture of teenage drunks, disaffected loners, blacks, even a volunteer fireman in Texas - along with hard-core racists like two members of the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, charged on May 10 for burning a black church in Greeleyville, S.C.
One statistic is clear: Church arson in the US has dropped every year but one in the past decade, according to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) statistics. The number of reported suspicious fires in churches or related property in 1986 was 1,060; in 1994 the figure was 520.
The lack of evidence of a systematic attack on black churches, the number of white churches burned, and the decrease in arson, have led to charges of racial grandstanding, some say.
"The story that has been told of the black-church burnings is more a myth than a lie - a large fiction spun out of a smaller truth," writes New Republic editor-designate Michael Kelly in the July 15 New Yorker magazine.
"There's an automatic assumption that there is racism out there," says an aide to a GOP congressman on the House Judiciary Committee, which held hearings on church arson last month. "I worry we are going to make it into something more than it is."
But a spokesman for the Center for Democratic Renewal disagrees. Noah Chandler says that while the current burnings are not like those of the 1960s, the "smaller truth" of the problem is a "growing smaller truth" - that overall racial incidents are up.
"It seems like a pretty predictable and common thing to deflate race as a factor in the burnings," Mr. Chandler says. "Pretty soon we will hear that racism doesn't exist."
Before January, few groups kept track of fires by race. The NFPA, for example, a nonprofit fire-safety group turned to by fire departments and insurance companies, says it cannot comment on the racial dimension of the burnings since it has never differentiated black versus white church arson. "We kept records on churches, not the race of the congregation," says Julie Reynolds, NFPA spokeswoman.
But while race is a factor in many black church fires, no US officials contacted found evidence of race involved in white church burnings. "No one goes out and says, 'Hey, let's burn a white church,' " says one FBI source. In the case of white churches, the arson tends to be for causes other than race - hatred or harmful fun.
Yet despite the color of church members, many church leaders feel arson reflects a conscious or unconscious hatred of religion that is carried out against the symbolic moral or spiritual authority that an edifice offers.
Others argue churches are targets because they have been marginalized in mainstream society. In this view, they are attacked as easy targets, since they are often empty or undefended.