Complaints of racial or sexual discrimination in the District jumped 41 percent last year, as a declining economy "gave the excuse to those who would discriminate against blacks and women," the director of the District's Office of Human Rights said yesterday.

Anita B. Shelton also attributed the sharp increase in complaints in part to "the new national climate of retreat from . . . basic civil rights protections."

Shelton's office accepted 715 discrimination complaints in fiscal year 1981, compared to 501 the year before, according to an annual report released yesterday. Of the 1981 complaints, 102 were allegations of discrimination within the District government, compared to 58 in 1980.

The complaints generally involved discrimination in employment (hiring, firing, promotion or pay) or in housing.

"Racial prejudice and an uncertain job market helped maintain citizens at lower wages, denied them benefits or promotions, unfairly disciplined or transferred them," Shelton said yesterday.

Of the 649 cases closed during the year, 194 were resolved in favor of the complainants, Shelton said. A major case brought last year against the fire department's hiring and promotion practices still is pending.

Damages assessed against individuals or firms found guilty of discrimination amounted to $676,581.60 in fiscal 1981, twice the amount of the year before, according to the report.

Despite the increase in complaints, Shelton said local civil rights groups and labor and civic organizations have not done enough to bring even more cases to the office which investigates discrimination in businesses and the District government.

"The shocking, hidden, uneforceable story behind the office's 1981 case enforcement," she said, was the number of citizens "who did not charge discrimination."

Shelton said about 1,350 employment-related complaints were made to her office last year, but about 46 percent of those were rejected. Some complaints were considered unfounded, but most were either insufficiently documented for action or the employe declined to follow up the complaint.

Shelton said many employes drop complaints because they often must face a battery of corporate lawyers and executives to prove their cases.

Most of those who file complaints are under 35, black and female, Shelton said. The District's population is about 70 percent black and 55 percent female.

Shelton said 340 of the private industry complaints filed involved unfair firings, 246 involved unequal treatment and 151 involved "harassment and intimidation." Of the complaints against the District government, Shelton said 43 alleged promotion denials, 24 unequal treatment and 19 harassment and intimidation.

Although only 21 persons filed "refusal-to-hire" complaints, Shelton said the low figure "was not a sign of progress in fair hiring."

Shelton issued her 60-page report during a community forum at the new downtown YWCA at 9th and G streets NW. In response to a question, she said she was unable to identify the city's "10 worst discriminators," but said her office would compile such information during the coming year.