After Howard Beach: time to re-examine racism in N.Y.C. Many black leaders say the guilty verdict shows that justice can work

In the wake of the guilty verdicts in the Howard Beach case Monday, many New Yorkers - black, white, and Hispanic - want to move forward in addressing the problem of racism. Three white teenagers from Howard Beach in Queens were found guilty of manslaughter and assault charges in the death of one black man and the beating of another last December. Michael Griffith, a construction worker, was chased to his death on a highway in Queens after a confrontation at a pizza parlor where Mr. Griffith and two companions had stopped after their car broke down.

Reactions to the Howard Beach verdict are mixed, but generally approving. Many black leaders said that the verdict shows that justice can work, although some were disappointed that the youths were acquitted on charges of second degree murder.

In Howard Beach, many whites are bitter. They feel that the blacks provoked the incident and the youths were simply reacting as kids, not with race in mind.

The questions New York still grapples with are how entrenched is racism in this community and how can it best be dealt with?

``The verdict demonstrates that there is a serious problem of racial hatred that drives racial violence,'' says Laura Blackburne of the New York State National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Public and private resources are needed to address the problem, and in the year since the incident occurred, there has not been a serious, sustained interest, she says.

``Public officials have to put this at the top of the agenda,'' says Ms. Blackburne, who has been involved in efforts to get black and white leaders working together on the problem of racism. She scores Mayor Edward I. Koch and State Attorney General Robert Abrams for not using their considerable resources to deal with racism. The state legislature, she points out, turned down a civil rights package put together after the Howard Beach incident, which would have created special prosecuting authority for all racial crimes.

In New York yesterday, leaders reported that there was relative calm after the verdict. But there was promise of more civil disobedience. On Monday, thousands of commuters were delayed when demonstrators against racismblocked traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge and at a Brooklyn subway station.

Rep. Floyd H. Flake (D) of Queens, whose district includes Howard Beach, says that the legal process, which included a two-month trial and 12 days of jury deliberation, seems to have been fair.

``For blacks that is not always the case,'' he says. He lauds the efforts of special prosecutor Charles J. Hynes, but agrees that the tougher problem is to make sure that the same kind of fairness is manifested by district attorneys. Mr. Hynes was appointed to the Howard Beach case by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo after initial questions about the handling of the case by the Queens district attorney.

``The city has to be sensitized all the way down the line,'' says Mr. Flake, ``from the mayor's office to city council to the Board of Education.''

One of the ``greatest pluses'' in the aftermath of the Howard Beach incident, says Flake, is the progress of the interracial group formed immediately after Howard Beach. It has been trained in conflict resolution, and has been very responsive in keeping small fires from developing into major ones, he says.

But one of the harder aspects to overcome is that the situation has been dragged out for so long, says Flake. It has caused breaks and chasms between white and black communities in New York City. And those will take some time to heal. He also points out that many of the most frustrated are those who are the poorest, and who often feel the most powerless.

``Race relations are something that has to be worked at constantly,'' says Bill Dean, executive director of Volunteers for Legal Service and a participant in the Mayor's Commission on the Year 2000.

``Political and civic leaders need to build a political atmosphere which promotes better working relations [between communities] and tries to reduce racial problems,'' he says.

``As my teachers used to say to me, [the city] could be doing considerably better,'' says Mr. Dean.

At the same time, he notes the great progress that has been made and the increasing numbers of blacks and other minorities he sees making it in New York. He is also ``moved'' by the sight of the New Yorkers of all colors and backgrounds working and living together happily.

A major issue, says Dean, is the nearly 25 percent of the city's population that lives in poverty, most of whom are minorities.

``In terms of building for the future, we need to look even beyond healing [racial conflicts] ... and address far more aggressively the underlying problem, which is poverty,'' says Dean.

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