THE skinheads made the news again recently, staging what was to have been an ``Aryan Woodstock'' in a rented cow pasture north of San Francisco. Somewhere between 50 and 150 young men showed up, with characteristic shaven heads, steel-toed boots, and swastika tattoos. They were far outnumbered by taunting protesters. It would be easy to brush aside the skinheads as a social aberration, except that the anti-black, anti-Semitic views held by many of them tap into a long history of racial hatred in American society. Such animosity is all too easily inflamed. And the militancy of the skinheads is being exploited by white supremacists in the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups.
The same day's papers that carried reports of the skinhead gathering also brought a lengthy Washington Post feature story about racial feelings among high school students in the suburbs of the nation's capital. The author, a teacher, says racial slurs are common among teenagers in his town, and that many of these relatively well-off kids, both white and black, readily accept racial stereotypes.
Such observations remind us that the antipathies blatantly expressed by the skinheads, who are typically urban white youths from low-income neighborhoods, are hardly limited to them.
The activities of racist fringe groups warrant close scrutiny, since even a handful of violence-prone people can do damage out of proportion to their numbers. Skinheads have been arrested for a killing in Portland, Ore., and a shooting in Las Vegas.
Skinhead rallies organized by white supremacists emphasize the need for others to continue building understanding among Americans of all backgrounds at the community, neighborhood, and family levels. The same goes for events like the victory of former Klan chief David Duke in Louisiana legislative elections, or the reports of racial conflict on college campuses. The work of shaping a truly tolerant society is never over.