THE finding of the Kerner Commission of nearly a generation ago was that the United States was two nations, one white and one black. The intense racial hatreds that erupted in the 1960s are no longer apparent. But this last presidential election clearly tells us that the deep division still exists. Juan Williams, a black newsman, recently wrote in the Washington Post: ``The 1988 campaign reminds us all of a chilling reality: America is a racially divided nation. Blacks are much angrier at whites and whites are much angrier at blacks than Americans like to admit, and that animosity is poisoning the process through which we choose our leaders.''
``Anger'' is too strong a word. But the racial split is - most regrettably - quite visible.
The blacks voted overwhelmingly for Michael Dukakis; the whites voted for George Bush. The statistics vary from region to region, with the widest variation coming in the South, where the GOP candidate won 68 percent of the white vote and only 12 percent of the black vote. In the Midwest the white vote for Mr. Bush was 57 percent and the black vote only 8 percent.
This is merely an extension of a trend where the Republican presidential candidate has won the white vote in every election since Franklin Roosevelt - except in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson drew a majority of the whites in his race against Barry Goldwater.
Once again, code words used in the campaign by GOP candidates helped to stir up this division in the vote. ``Family values'' meant white values to many people. The anti-crime and death-penalty positions of the Republicans underscored the view many whites hold that most violence takes place among blacks.
The widespread feeling among blacks that President Reagan hadn't done much for them and other disadvantaged people - and that Bush wouldn't treat them any better - encouraged them to follow their usual voting pattern.
Mr. Williams blames not only the Republican leaders for encouraging this polarization, but also blames Jesse Jackson for contributing to this divisive trend ``by making emotional race-based appeals.''
A nation so divided is not a pretty thing. President-elect Bush talks of a ``kinder, gentler nation'' as one of his main goals. The tone is right for making progress toward unity. But the task is a tremendous one if he is to convince minorities and the poor that he is really concerned with their well-being.
The cold politics of this racial division is something else again. What many observers are calling ``white flight'' is propping up a Republican Party so that it can win presidential elections, again and again.
Already, the Democrats seem to be in trouble for 1992. If you read Jesse Jackson's lips these days, the message is clear. He's running for president again. He missed last time; but after two losing efforts he expects to build on the visibility he has achieved in the past and thereby capture the presidential nomination.
The Rev. Mr. Jackson has proved himself a formidable candidate. He proved himself to be the best debater among the Democratic candidates. He made a moving speech at the Democratic National Convention. He is a very bright fellow and possesses a quick, natural wit - something Mr. Dukakis lacked.
Having heaped all this praise on Jackson, however, I must say that the last thing the Democrats need is to have him on their hands once again.
Jackson won plaudits and credibility a few years back among many in the white community by candidly telling black schoolchildren that the road upward was only by way of diligent study and scholastic achievement. He also told them that ``it is time for babies to stop making babies,'' and that black progress could come only if there was an end to the drug use that was demoralizing the black communities.
As a teacher or preacher Jackson is quite acceptable to whites. But Jackson as president of the United States is something else again.
The opposition isn't entirely racial. Indeed, it is more ideological. He is viewed by many Republicans and others, too, as captain of the ``L'' team among the Democrats. They think his liberalism means that more federal money would be allocated for programs for blacks. And they hear him freely advocating such solutions - what they conclude means a return to ``big government.''
The plight of Democrats in dealing with Jackson was vividly apparent in this last campaign. Race raised its head in the primaries. If Jackson had won the New York contest he might have been able to win the nomination. But whites among the Democrats - mainly those in the Jewish community who saw anti-Semitism in some of Jackson's comments and views - rose up and rejected him.
Jackson stayed on in the campaign and racked up an impressive delegate total - enough so that he felt he was entitled to the second spot on the ticket. Dukakis thought otherwise. A divisive split at the convention was averted at the last minute by a Dukakis pledge that Jackson would be his partner in the autumn race for the presidency.
The unity of these adversaries at the convention played well. It helped to move Dukakis to a lead of upwards of 20 percent in the polls. But the lead soon evaporated after Bush's acceptance speech at the GOP convention and his aggressive campaigning. Also, when Dukakis kept his distance from Jackson (early in the fall campaign) in order to woo white voters who felt uncomfortable about Jackson, blacks became less enthusiastic about Dukakis. Many blacks didn't register; many stayed home.
It was a very low voter turnout, only about 50 percent. And compared with 1984, the 1988 drop-off of the black vote was bigger than the drop-off of the white vote.