AS President Clinton prepares to deliver his 1996 State of the Union speech tonight, it's painfully clear that the nation isn't as unified as we Americans had once believed. In the aftermath of the O.J. Simpson trial and the Million Man March, a disturbingly high number of Americans seem to be receptive to talk of racial separatism. The silver lining in this otherwise ominous cloud is that more Americans than at any time in a generation understand that we still need to confront a race problem.
Of course, we don't all see ''the problem'' in the same way. For too many of today's hottest commentators and political leaders, America's multifaceted race problem boils down to pathological, destructive behavior in the ghettos. For many holding this view, the preferred ''solution'' is essentially a domestic counterpart to the postwar, anti-Soviet foreign-policy strategy of containment: Insulate ''society'' from the ghetto while exerting pressure against it, perhaps in the hope that the internal enemy, like the Soviet empire, will ultimately collapse.
A domestic containment strategy should be rejected out of hand by all Americans, even those who view the entirety of the race problem in such narrow, myopic terms. In addition to containment's blatant immorality in the domestic context, it's simply not a tenable long-term solution.
In any case, the domestic containment ''solution'' should be unthinkable for an idealistic nation. Americans surely love their country too much to accept the notion of the United States in 1995 as just another nation-state, mimicking the world's numerous countries that have opted not to burden themselves with the commitments to social justice and the grand ideals of democracy.
The authors of this piece are an African-American and an Asian American. Our experience with race in America ranges from the pain of having to fight discrimination at a powerful Wall Street law firm to the richness of our own quarter-century friendship dating from our childhood in an integrated community in the Queens borough of New York. Although we've witnessed enough racial animosity firsthand to know that this country's race problem extends far beyond ghetto poverty - itself an enormous problem - we're convinced that racial harmony is within America's reach.
Most Americans, of all races, want better race relations in this country. There is, of course, an argument to the contrary, one that cites with horror the enthusiastic constituencies that support the racial radicals on the right and the left. But these constituencies are small. The majority hasn't given up on the ideal of an integrated, multiracial society.
How do we move toward a more unified nation? Last year, President Clinton was right to tell us that individual Americans bear the bulk of the responsibility for improving race relations, but he also properly acknowledged the role of strong, visible presidential leadership. In a democracy, that struggle can't be won any other way; low-profile bureaucratic directives implemented behind the scenes won't succeed over the long run, as the revolt against affirmative action is now demonstrating.
The president can use his bully pulpit to persuade Americans that it's their patriotic duty to help build a more cohesive and connected nation. There is reason to believe that such a message would resonate: A staggering 88 percent of Americans described themselves as ''very patriotic'' in a Los Angeles Times poll. Patriotism is the most compelling theme that can be invoked on behalf of better race relations in America - not the nativist, exclusionary version popular today among right-wing militia groups, but rather a more colorful patriotism that celebrates and brings together America's extraordinarily diverse population.
As one part of that effort, the president should consider enlisting the creative community's talents in designing a bipartisan, patriotism-themed multimedia campaign to highlight the gloriousness and uniqueness of our multiracial, multitalented society. Ironically, the ''success'' of Republican Willie Horton ads in 1988 demonstrated that media can be used effectively (if irresponsibly) to influence public opinion on matters of race. In these troubled times, let's put some of that media genius to more constructive use, in the name of American patriotism.