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Pay Attention to the Cities : Boston friction reminds anew of the work left to be done

May 11, 1993

Race remains a rent in the social fabric of America. That sad reality became apparent once again in the brutal fight last Thursday at a South Boston high school.

In a scene reminiscent of the anti-busing wars of nearly 20 years ago, black students battled white students and neighborhood youths. The ugly incident reminds America anew of the need to pay more attention to our cities.

"Southie," a poor predominantly white neighborhood, once symbolized the violent resistance of court-ordered busing for desegregation. In 1974 angry white mobs gathered at the same high school and confronted buses carrying black students; their daily attacks were motivated as much by race as by the claiming of "turf." Outsiders were cursed, beaten and told to stay out.

Over the years, the violence subsided as many whites fled and black, Latino and Asian students became the new majority in the public schools. But the tension never fully disappeared.

The most recent "us against them" call to arms arose after the April 15 beating of a white woman in a South Boston housing project. The arrest of a black man in that attack prompted some in the neighborhood to insist on retaliation. The result: a rock- and bottle-throwing brawl that pitted white have-nots against black have-nots and sent members of each group to hospitals. Also injured was Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, hurt when he intervened.

Violent episodes such as South Boston's are not unusual in the United States, of course. Festering racial, ethnic and class tensions persist, plaguing Los Angeles and other major cities. And in some respects the rhetoric is so very similar from one city to another. They--whoever "they" are--are trying to take over from "us." Or "they"--fill in the blank--are trying to blame every urban malady on us.

But the blame game only gets you so far. In fact, the real blame for racial and ethnic tension belongs to every American who is unwilling to get along and to every politician who emphasizes divisions and competition rather than our commonalities. We are all in this together.

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