Bensonhurst to Boston

THE racial killing in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst has at least one root cause in the kind of latent racism reported recently in our hometown. The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston finds a clear racial pattern in mortgages approved for homeowners in the city. Even when economic factors are discounted, predominantly black communities are 24 percent less likely to get such mortgages. The disparity is even greater between all-white and all-black neighborhoods in Boston. Other cities have the same problem, which doesn't come as any revelation to those who have been working against ``redlining'' for years.

Lenders are not charged with denying home loans simply on the basis of race, and there are other factors involved - unwillingness of some real estate agents and developers to generate business in minority communities, unwillingness of would-be homeowners to move to certain neighborhoods. Still, the issue really is one of race and the kind of institutional barriers to social desegregation that remain long after the most overt forms of racism have been declared illegal.

The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 requires lenders to meet local credit needs, but doesn't have any real enforcement teeth. Maybe it should, as Massachusetts Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy 2nd suggests, especially since the savings and loan industry is about to be bailed out by taxpayers at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars.

More helpful will be the lending industry's acknowledging that the problem exists, and that it has an obligation to do something about it. As Bank of Boston president Robert Mahoney said, ``It's not only the law, it's the right thing to do. And it's not charity, it's good business.''

Bensonhurst was a tragedy. It would be good if one of its roots could be identified - and dealt with - in Boston.

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