WHEN four young white Long Island men beat a 17-year-old black man nearly to death, allegedly over a white girl, it at first looked like Bensonhurst all over again, or something out of Spike Lee's new movie ``Jungle Fever.'' The act, which took place last week after a party in Atlantic Beach, was senseless and barbaric. There is no excuse for it, save utter ignorance. The young black victim, an aspiring football player, college student, and businessman, is still in the hospital in serious condition. He appears to have been ``guilty'' only of talking with a white girl.
Yet the case of Alfred Jermaine Ewell, for all its ugliness and tragedy, hasn't contained the same explosive anger as did the Howard Beach incident in 1986, or Bensonhurst in 1989.
Why not? On first read, the case seemed to confirm the conventional wisdom about race in America: How much racial tension and hatred still exists in the US. How divided communities are. How little progress has been made in racial harmony.
In its own strange way, however, the Atlantic Beach story is two-edged - showing the problems of race, yet also showing that the ``intractable-racism-in-America'' view isn't completely accurate.
Both Atlantic Beach and the Inwood communities, for example, are mobilizing, after an initial period of shock. Both towns are multicultural and pride themselves as places where integration has worked. Kids are integrated in schools and on sports teams. Mr. Ewell is a popular young man - with many friends both white and black. Ewell's best friend from kindergarten, sitting out a vigil at the hospital bedside, is white. He says he and Jermaine are ``like brothers.'' Such friendships don't usually make hea dlines. But they do exist.
Both whites and blacks from Inwood are helping to finance Ewell's care at the hospital. Teams of 10-year-old white girls are going house to house to collect funds. Last week, many blacks in Inwood opposed the minor protest march led by that entrepreneur of racial tension, the Rev. Al Sharpton - feeling he doesn't understand the dynamics either of their town or of the incident itself. Even some particulars about the incident are hard to fathom. The alleged principal attacker is said to have many black friends and loves black music. What caused the sudden insane impulse? Alcohol. Adolescent group dynamics. Territoriality. Fear. Racism.
Mr. Siegel and his friends acted out a tired, narrow script. Yet to simply chorus about deteriorating race relations in an unjust society is itself parochial. What other country has ever made such progress in civil rights? The response of Jermaine Ewell's friends, his devoutly religious mother, and his community - the love they have shown - are evidence that there has been progress on race.
Acknowledging progress at a time of tragedy isn't a form of denial. It suggests race issues can be worked on constructively - beginning with the human heart.