New York's Angry 'Dialogue on Race'

National report is out, but city's clashes show difficulty of dealing with race.

Perched on a stool at the end of the counter at Coogan's Luncheonette, a woman named Pat in a matching purple outfit shakes her head. "No, I don't want to be interviewed," she says, tears welling up in her eyes. "You've made us all out to be a bunch of racists."

Like others in Broad Channel, a small, predominantly white community in the borough of Queens, Pat now knows what it's like to be thrust in the middle of a heart-wrenching dialogue on race - one in which people often speak past, rather than with, one another.

The controversy was sparked by a float in the neighborhood's Labor Day parade. A group of white men dressed up in black face and Afro wigs, and rode in the back of a pickup truck proclaiming, "We're moving in, crackers." It was meant as a joke, they said, a lampoon of the fact the area would someday be integrated. But at one point, a man jumped off the back and reenacted this summer's dragging death of a black man in Texas.

The incident, and the indignation it sparked, sharply focuses the deep gaps in understanding that still exist in America. New York's racial politics have been particularly raw and close to the surface. But social scientists say the distrust and alienation found in many minority communities here, and the apparent indifference among many whites, parallel that in the rest of the country.

"We've lost sight of the goal of one community," says Tamar Jacoby, author of a book about integration. "We celebrate diversity as a great value and virtue, but somehow we can't tell where the celebration of 'us' becomes the vilification of 'them.' "

For the last 15 months, President Clinton's advisory board on race has been trying to create such a dialogue. On Friday, it issued its final report. Its main recommendations were to create a permanent presidential council on race, urge government and business leaders to make "racial reconciliation a reality," and encourage young leaders to bridge the gaps between races.

What was lacking in meetings that set the foundation for the report, critics contend, was a more candid conversation about race.

"There was too much of the touchy, feely, 'why can't we get along?' stuff, instead of dealing with questions of institutional racism," says Ron Daniels, a legal expert on race. "We need people to understand the realities of the intergenerational deficits and benefits that accrue," he says, referring to the history of white dominance in economics, education, and other bases of power.

Even before the Broad Channel float made its way onto the evening news, racial tension in New York was high. Thousands of police, some in riot gear, were lined up in Harlem for the Million Youth March. Streets and subway stations were closed. Avowed anti-Semite and black nationalist Khalid Muhammad sponsored the event, which attracted about 6,000 people.

At four o'clock, when the march was scheduled to end, a scuffle ensued near the stage, police rushed in, and violence erupted as a police helicopter hovered over the crowd.

"I think it was sabotage, purposely done," says June Greig-Fisher, a businesswoman in Harlem. Echoing the sentiments of many others in the community, she says she felt "demeaned, herded like cattle" by the strong police presence.

"Bigoted speech may be offensive, but it is protected by the First Amendment," says Mr. Daniels. "When have you seen a KKK rally rushed by police?"

Even black leaders who shunned Muhammad's rally were enraged by the city's handling of the event.

When news of the Broad Channel float hit, with the atmosphere already confrontational, Mayor Giuliani reacted immediately, saying he was "outraged by such a disgusting show of racism."

He ordered an immediate investigation by the Human Rights Commission, directed the city's Fire Department to sever ties with the volunteer department that sponsors the parade, and cut the city's annual contribution to the volunteer department. He also suspended and intends to fire a police officer and two city firemen who were on the float.

The officer and one of the firefighters have filed lawsuits, saying they did not know about any plan to reenact the dragging during the parade.

"He's being totally unfair to the whole community," says Elsie Valentino, a resident of Broad Channel for 50 years. "I agree, these guys did something that was in bad taste, but it would have been dealt with here. We take care of our own here."

The consensus in the community is that the mayor came down on Broad Channel so heavily for purely political purposes. In response, it has closed ranks, shunning the city and the press.

Ironically, the sentiment is shared in Harlem.

"Now he's picked on these people so we'll think he's on our side," says Ms. Greig-Fisher. "But he's not. What Giuliani did was also racist. What's the difference between what he did with the Million Youth March and [the racism behind the float]"

THE mayor defends himself in both instances and makes no apologies. But with each community left feeling alienated, some people are searching for a more effective way to handle such problems in the future.

"[The mayor] has to speak to the youth," says Guy Walker, a Harlem hairdresser. "He has to give back, give something to the schools instead of building all these precincts and putting more police on the streets."

In Broad Channel, apologies have been made. But there's a strong belief the mayor should at least reconsider his punishment of the local volunteer fire department, which simply sponsored the parade, not the float.

"There's no prejudice when a life needs to be saved down here," says Ms. Valentino.

"If they took a count of how many black people were in accidents, that we saved their lives - they don't account for that."

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