Mail Bombings May Signal Rise In Racial Violence


THE recent wave of bombings in the South, now suspected of stemming from racial animosity, comes as a jarring interruption of a two-decade lull in terrorism in the United States, since the anti-black violence of the 1960s. The new bombings may prove to be merely an aberration. Or they may signal at least a rise in racial intolerance and perhaps an increase in racially motivated violence, some experts warn.

As of this writing law enforcement authorities have no proof that the four package bombs were sent by an anti-black organization like the Ku Klux Klan or by a bigoted individual. But they are focusing much attention on that likelihood, inasmuch as the bombs have been sent to persons or organizations now or previously active in civil rights issues.

Two of the mail-package bombs exploded. One killed federal Judge Robert Vance, who was white; the other killed Savannah alderman Robert Robinson, who was black. Two other bombs were defused, one at the Jacksonville, Fla., office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the second at the headquarters of the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals, which has handled controversial race-related cases.

New white backlash?

These bombings ``are reminiscent of incidents in the civil rights movement when public officials and activists were routinely threatened with death, physically attacked, and sometimes killed,'' says John Lewis, who knows firsthand. During the violent 1960s he was a civil rights activist as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; now he is a member of the US House of Representatives from Atlanta.

Such racial violence has been way down in recent years. From 1984 through 1988 a total of three people were killed and 29 injured in 61 US terrorist incidents, including bombings, according to the FBI. The FBI says an additional 49 terrorist incidents were prevented during those five years. Representative Lewis expresses the hope that the bombings of the last few days ``do not signal a return'' to the ``fear and violence'' of the 1960s.

No one is forecasting a return to the '60s level of fear and racial brutality. But the bombings may be symptoms of rising intolerance among a new generation of whites, some experts warn.

``I think I discern a pattern of increasing intolerance, and willingness even to engage in some violence, by young whites,'' says Irwin Suall, fact-finding director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith. ``We may be entering a new period in which younger people ... are expressing a new kind of white backlash.''

Mr. Suall labels his thoughts ``tentative,'' and says they are based on recent developments, including the rise of young (age 15-25) white male skinheads, who commit acts of violence against blacks, Asians, Jews, homosexuals and other minorities. According to the FBI there may be as many as one thousand skinheads in the US, and the number is growing.

Potential link with `crisis of the family'

In part the current white backlash is against specific controversial measures, such as racial quotas, Suall says.

But in part it stems from a more sociological root, he adds - the only common sociological thread that appears shared by most skinheads. ``The underlying pattern that seems to exist is that a very large percentage of the skinheads come from broken families.

``So I think there is a very large relationship between the crisis of the family'' in America and the willingness of a small but growing number of young white males to turn their personal anger toward people who are different from themselves, Suall adds. ``Exactly how it is translated into violence would be purely speculative on my part.''

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