Bias Incidents Are on the Rise in New York City

A 16-year-old black youth is shot to death as he walks through a white neighborhood on his way to buy a car. A white woman jogger is raped and beaten by black teens in central park. A mob of mostly Italian-American youths beats two Jewish students while shouting anti-Semitic slurs. A black activist, criticized for past anti-Semitic comments, says he's not anti-Semitic - he's anti-white. These New York City occurrences have drawn nationwide attention. That's because Americans see the city as a more dramatic, major-league version of problems that face the nation. And in few areas is a national blight so magnified as in the area of bias: offenses or criminal acts against persons or property, motivated by a victim's race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

Racial incidents on the rise

In 1988, New York City police recorded 550 bias incidents, up from 463 the previous year. Through Sept. 30 of this year, there have been 410: 110 anti-Semitic, 122 against blacks, 84 whites, 23 Hispanics, 16 Asians, 41 gays, and 14 others.

Bias specialists say nonresidents mistakenly see New York City as more cosmopolitan and sophisticated than it really is, and are surprised by its ethnic problems. ``They only see a small part,'' says Harriet Bogard, director of the Anti-Defamation League's New York regional office. ``People are ethnocentric - they tend to stay in their neighborhood.''

The problem is exacerbated by both the size of the population and the density. ``You have a large population of enormous diversity in an extremely crowded area, using an old infrastructure where city services are breaking down,'' Ms. Bogard says. In addition, there is an enormous number of immigrants, both undocumented and documented.

Factors fostering intolerance

People who attend street fairs and delight in wandering from one ethnic booth to another may be unable to carry that same appreciation for diversity into their daily lives, experts say. Among the factors, in addition to crowding, that they cite as fostering intolerance:

For many years, certain groups had access to skilled jobs and municipal employment through family and ethnic identification and union connections. But a decline of manufacturing jobs and pressure on unions to integrate has threatened those footholds.

Some new immigrants are getting more economic assistance than earlier arrivals, and often know better how to use the system.

Some people feel they have been disenfranchised. They become frightened and angry to find a growing number of non-English speakers.

People of color are most often both the victims and perpetrators of crime. As a result, some whites begin to view every minority person walking in their neighborhood as a prospective criminal.

Comedians and other figures of prominence can perpetuate - often unwittingly - stereotypes.

Sheer fear and ignorance, coupled with unfortunate rites of passage for youths trying to prove their manhood target those who look different.

Many believe bias is endemic to American culture. ``Racism is a part of the assimilation process in this country,'' says Eric Foner, who teaches Afro-American history at Columbia University. ``Even people born in other countries think they have a claim on this country blacks don't have. These people who got off the boat 20 years ago, are screaming ``blacks go back where you came from'' - although [the blacks] are descendants of people who came here hundreds of years ago.'' Fighting prejudice in the streets

The war against prejudice is being waged by special police units in places such as Boston and Long Island's Nassau and Suffolk Counties. In New York City, a 20-member Bias Incident Investigating Unit has been operating since 1980. Inspector Paul Sanderson, the unit's commander, says young people are the biggest part of the problem. In the past three years, 70 percent of those arrested have been under 19, 40 percent under 16.

Meanwhile, efforts to codify bias crimes are floundering. A major bill is stalled in the New York state legislature, where some members have balked at including sexual orientation.

``There is always window dressing after a Bensonhurst or Howard Beach,'' Bogard says. ``[But] I have yet to see an ongoing effort to attack it in a sophisticated way.'' One idea: assign a deputy mayor permanent responsibility for dealing with bias issues.

The key point, Bogard says, is that a positive message about pluralism must come through all of the systems: political, educational, and religious. ``It has to be everywhere. It has to be so pervasive, that it's not chic to be a bigot. It's got to be so unacceptable. That takes time.''

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