OVER a century after the Emancipation Proclamation and 25 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, race relations continue to be a potent issue in the United States. Consider the debate over the meaning of Spike Lee's new film, ``Do the Right Thing.'' Mr. Lee uses the cryptic, shorthand methods of cinema to explore complex questions of how, or whether, people of different races can live in harmony.
The US is more, not less, heterogeneous than in the past. Thousands of people from Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia are drawn to the same magnet of freedom and opportunity that once drew Europe's disenfranchised and desperate. Understanding the needs and cultures of people with little means and large hopes is at least as important to the future of the country as whether Americans can compete on high definition television.
Lee's hard-edged film, bounding between anger and buoyancy, deals with the deepest of American ethnic divides, that separating blacks and whites.
True, important facets of national life - higher education and aspects of business - have been integrated. Racial stereotyping is publicly scorned. But is there genuine understanding between the races? The distance, it seems, between the ghetto and the suburb - a growing black middle class aside - remains vast.
The film builds to a violent racial episode, and then ends with two quotations, from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Their words pose a dilemma. Is violence never justified and never productive, as Dr. King argued? Or is it sometimes the only option, as Malcolm said during much of his life?
Lee seems to imply that in the world of 1989, it is politically correct to consider violence an appropriate or even ``intelligent'' means of change. This is unfortunate given Lee's enormous status and popularity among younger blacks.
One young black in the film delivers a speech about how love and hate may punch it out, but that love will win. ``Right Thing'' ends with a knockout by hate when that character dies and a white-owned pizzeria is destroyed.
Nobody wins, however, when a neighborhood explodes - or when a nation's social fabric is eaten at by racism. The tragedy is that almost no one, in the movie, is big enough to be the peacemaker, the one who tempers pride and surmounts anger. That takes a depth of love, a commitment to healing, that is rare but attainable.
It's worth noting that Malcolm X himself adopted that point of view before he was shot. Malcolm was no less angry about racism, but felt that militant solutions wouldn't work, that they were ``blind.'' Hence, he preached a more serious brotherly love based on religious understanding.
People may be offended by Lee's film - not just the street language, but the sharp racial jabs. But with a Supreme Court-inspired debate on the meaning of equality just beginning, it reminds us of the need to think constructively about one of the nation's - and the world's - great unfinished pieces of business.