RACIAL tension over the drug and perjury trial of Washington Mayor Marion Barry illustrates the gap that still exists between the perceived and actual worlds of black America. Many blacks who never supported Mr. Barry as a politician say that white America has misunderstood the stir over the case.
Part of the problem, say a wide spectrum of blacks, is that most Americans still do not recognize diversity within the black community. The misperception of blacks as a monolithically thinking and acting bloc is a problem that underlies much of the racial division in this country, they say.
Just last week, for example, black stereotyping drew fire from Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan. US Rep. Pete Stark (D) of California called Mr. Sullivan a ``disgrace to his race'' because of his conservatism.
Secretary Sullivan blasted the congressman for holding a racist perception that there are ``political positions we as blacks are `supposed' to have.''
The Barry case is more complex. There is widespread feeling among blacks that the unusual lengths the federal government took - including his drug sting captured in humiliating detail on videotape - to prosecute the mayor were racially motivated. But support for the mayor himself is not as widespread nor was he ever unanimously backed by Washington's black majority.
``I think there is great confusion by many whites about what is going on with Barry ... and the confusion is related to the question of diversity [in the black community],'' says Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Georgetown University law professor who is running for Congress in the District of Columbia. ``Before the trial, particularly before the tape [was aired publicly], the diversity of opinion on the mayor was more pronounced,'' she says.
But after the tape of the sting was broadcast repeatedly and became the source of street humor and gleeful political ridicule, she says the unity of negative opinion the black community expressed over the prosecution's ``unusual'' pursuit of Barry obscured that diversity of black opinion.
A black school administrator here who says she has always resented the media's portrayal of Barry as a role model for blacks as if all blacks looked up to him, crystallized the frustration of many blacks in this comment:
``I have been stamped with the mayor; they have made him me.''
Ironically, she says, she has felt forced into playing the media's stereotype of a black, compelled to defend Barry because he is black but for no other reason.
Whites who hold black stereotypes may elicit a unified and seemingly stereotypical black response, says Mary Cox, a lawyer and columnist for the Capital Spotlight newspaper. That is because blacks share a history of racial oppression and will naturally fight unfair images of themselves, she says.
Ms. Cox recalls the negative campaigning done in the 1988 elections with the image of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who raped a woman and attacked her husband while on prison furlough granted by Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. ``Hortonized'' portrayals of black men are predominant in the media, she claims, adding that ``not all black men are criminals, not all black men are on drugs, not all are unemployed.''
Indeed, many statistical and anecdotal gauges of black diversity are surprising for their lack of currency in the media or among the white majority that rarely interacts with blacks.
National advertisers spend huge amounts of money based on marketing studies that identify differences among blacks, down to the blocks they live on, says Mike Reinemer, a spokesman for the Claritas Corporation, an Alexandria, Va., market research firm. Groups identified range from black enterprise types whose tastes and means are hardly different from the typical yuppie's to working-class households about to break into the middle class.
Claritas research concludes that more than two-thirds of black households cannot be described as poor.
Further, when seen through the lens of a demographic numbers cruncher, Washington's image as a capital of black inner-city poverty doesn't add up.
``The median income of blacks [in metropolitan Washington] is higher than the median income of the white population nationally ... incredible but true,'' says George Grier, senior analyst with the Greater Washington Research Center.
Less than a quarter of the district's black population falls below the poverty level, its poverty rate among blacks ranks the lowest of the top 10 major US cities, and more than half of the blacks live in suburbs, he says.
Karen Logue-Kinder, an executive with the Mingo Group Plus, a Manhattan advertising agency focusing on minority groups, says she sees the same ``striations and diversity in the black community as the white.''
But Ms. Logue-Kinder, who is black, says she is certain whites rarely are aware of this diversity. ``The worst part is they assume they do know us and understand us. The reality is there are few whites who come in contact on a day-to-day basis with blacks, who meet blacks who are their peers ... or go into their homes ... they don't know us.''
As an example of the private mortifications that cut both ways with racial stereotypes, Logue-Kinder says, ``certainly every time a black male steps in an elevator with a white woman they're both upset ... she's thinking about rape, and he's panic stricken that she's going to embarrass him by making a scene.''
Mrs. Norton concludes: ``We are only 35 years away from the beginning of the end of legal segregation and we spent 300 years with slavery and legal separation. To root out the deepest scar in the American character - racism - it is going to require understanding and take more contact'' between blacks and whites.