CITY VOICES. An erosion of life in New York's poor neighborhoods has heightened racial tension, many blacks say

MAYOR Edward Koch likes to point out from time to time that there has been no urban unrest in New York City since he took office in 1978, something he says his immediate predecessors cannot claim. But headlines highlighting the fractious nature of the Tawana Brawley case, three violent white-on-black attacks in the last two months, and other alarming social indicators are disturbing signs in this city.

Community leaders do not see an actual riot waiting to happen. Instead, several black leaders point to a kind of quiet riot that happens every day. The slow, daily erosion of life in some poor New York neighborhoods, they say, should be a real subject for concern.

``It's what is happening as you walk the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant or the Harlems, as you look at the overcrowded buildings and see the waste of children,'' says David Jones, general director of the Community Service Society of New York. ``That's the only issue that should be addressed.''

On a relative scale, there has been much progress for black New Yorkers in recent years. Top city officials, including a borough president and police chief, are black.

``You can't go into any business center in New York and not find blacks, Hispanics, Asians. The face of New York has changed,'' says Mayor Koch, who adds that the city has made a special effort to hire minorities and fight discrimination in areas such as housing.

In politics, Jesse Jackson's showing in April's New York primary, in which he picked up 37 percent of the vote, brought a sense of optimism to many blacks here.

Kevin Smith, who lives in an East Harlem housing project, says he dropped out of school because he wasn't learning anything and was routinely promoted even when he was absent half of the school year. Mr. Smith, unemployed and studying for a high school equivalency degree, found Jesse Jackson's candidacy reason enough to make it to the polls last April. The Rev. Mr. Jackson, Smith says, ``works for the things he believes in.''

But there are still worries that these gains may be offset by perceptions of general disenfranchisement for some sectors of the black community.

``While we've seen signs of improvement among members of the black middle class, by and large the conditions of the black working poor have deteriorated,'' says Mr. Jones of the Community Service Society.

He refers to the number of homeless families, the 24.3 percent high school dropout rate for blacks, the crimes that spin off from the increased use of crack cocaine, and an infant mortality rate as high as 27.6 per 1000 live births.

In the 1960s and '70s, frustration over similar social ills led to explosive riots.

Now, one black lawyer says, there is instead an ``implosion.'' The effects of racism - discrimination in jobs, inadequate education, low self-esteem - are felt throughout the poor, black community, says Laura Blackburne, president of a nonprofit conflict-resolution group.

``You see that in the way people are abusing themselves,'' she says. ``Why is crack so popular? Why are more and more people becoming alcoholics? Why are our families falling apart? We are certainly experiencing the impact of racism in the megaton scale.''

For many of New York's blacks, the broad issues of racism are pushed into the background as they battle the effects of the ``riot'' in their daily lives.

On South Street in Jamaica, Queens, Nancy Milfong and Gloria Eugene work to save their children from a tidal wave of crack and a school system they say does not work.

Ms. Milfong, with money from Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), runs an informal youth center in her basement. Using donated books and a videocassette recorder, working mothers like Mrs. Eugene spend evenings tutoring children. And, with help from local police, residents have banded together to push back the neighborhood drug trade.

Some, like Eugene, say they have seen positive social change come from the civil rights movement. But others, especially those in poorer communities, are more skeptical.

``There is a growing alienation that's going on among these populations - a disbelief in government structures,'' Jones says. ``The established trust the government is supposed to have with its population on all economic levels has been broken. People see their communities falling apart.''

Election turnout reflects some of this frustration. Many blacks - as is the case with most other ethnic groups - do not go to the polls. Ray Robinson, a black social worker from Manhattan who does vote, says the reason for not voting is often ``deeper than cynicism or apathy. ... It's rage - the only way to get back'' at a system that seems to treat people of different colors unfairly.

Down the block from the youth center, Bass Lambert, a free-lance auto mechanic, lifts weights in an abandoned-car lot. He says he doesn't vote and distrusts most politicians.

``I don't care because they don't care,'' says Mr. Lambert, who teaches weight lifting to neighborhood children. He says local law enforcement lacks credibility and charges that police prefer to go after neighborhood squabbles rather than drug dealers. And when one white policeman is killed, he notes, referring to a recent incident that occurred nearby, the neighborhood gets plenty of attention. But, he adds, ``a black kid gets shot, and it fades away after one day.''

Mr. Koch chides people who he says seek to stir up trouble by conveying the idea that there is systemic racism in the criminal-justice system. ``That is unfair, counterproductive, and harmful,'' he says. ``Notwithstanding that there will be bigots, it doesn't go throughout the system.... Instead of dwelling in the past and spitting in the wind, they should try to make things better, not through revolution, but through the ballot.''

Many black leaders, while acknowledging the responsibilities of individuals and communities, regret the shortsightedness they say pervades government leadership, including the mayor's office. Says Ms. Blackburne: ``On a scale of reality, crack is not the most deadly force in the city. Indifference is far more deadly than crack.''

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