Bigotry still a 'serious threat' in US

Spray-painted swastikas appear on the front of a Montgomery County, Md., delicatessen. A white Boston youth is ordered by the courts to stop harassing his black neighbors. The Ku Klux Klan rallies in Washington, inciting an angry crowd to retaliatory violence.

These incidents, which all occurred in 1982, point out that violence and harassment spawned by prejudice still exist in the United States. Such incidents are ''a serious threat to the maintenance of a peaceful, democratic, and pluralistic society,'' says a report released Tuesday by the US Commission on Civil Rights.

But much is being done in states and communities to combat instances of bigotry. These efforts may be paying off: Another just-released study says acts of violence and vandalism against one group, Jews, declined nearly 15 percent in 1982.

Take the misery caused by high unemployment. Mix in the human propensity to find scapegoats and the perception that enforcement of civil-rights laws is diminishing. Add simple bigotry, and you have a fertile environment for acts of religious and racially targeted harassment, conclude members of the commission.

It's difficult to measure the extent of the problem, since most law-enforcement organizations don't keep statistics on instances of bigoted violence. The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith counted 974 instances of anti-Semitic vandalism in 1981, a twentyfold increase since 1978. In some areas of the country, such as Georgia, the Ku Klux Klan is growing in size and visibility, according to state committees of the Civil Rights Commission. Klan membership, however, is still fairly small.

''[Violence spawned by bigotry] tends to be on the increase,'' claims Clarence Pendleton, chairman of the US Civil Rights Commission.

''Any of it is too much,'' adds commission member Mary Frances Berry. Whatever the scope of the problem, communities and law-enforcement agencies across the country are trying a great variety of methods to combat harassment of specific religious and racial groups, stresses the commission's new report.

* Efforts are being made to keep better track of religious and racial violence and the ''hate groups'' that foster such incidents. Maryland has passed a unique law requiring police to keep statistics on crimes of religious or racial prejudice. Private groups such as Klanwatch and the National Anti-Klan Network monitor the Ku Klux Klan, and often file lawsuits against KKK activity.

* Some schools are specifically teaching children about the effects of anti-Semitism and racism. The National Education Association, in concert with two other educational groups, distributes a teacher's kit on the KKK. In Detroit's public schools, the study of racial and religious bigotry and persecution is being built into the curriculum.

* In a number of areas, laws and police reaction are being improved. Over the last two years, 13 states have passed bills that make bigoted violence and harassment serious criminal offenses. Rhode Island and Massachusetts have formed special police squads to fight such incidents.

* Community groups are springing up to combat the problem. The Montgomery County (Md.) Coordinating Committee on Hate/Violence, for instance, sets up lines of communication between religious groups and briefs businessmen on fighting bigotry-caused vandalism.

In at least one category these efforts may be proving successful.

The Anti-Defamation League reported Jan. 10 that instances of anti-Semitic vandalism declined nearly 15 percent in 1982, to 829. The ADL compiles its figures from individual complaints made to regional offices and official police reports. ADL officials attributed the decline to tougher criminal penalties and increased police awareness.

The Civil Rights Commission, concluding its report, urges that statistics on bigoted violence against all groups be collected nationwide. Its report also recommended more educational programs to combat racism and anti-Semitism, and stepped-up prosecutions in some areas of civil rights by the Department of Justice.

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