Last week, a baby who had been abducted from a cradle in Prince George's General Hospital was reunited with his ecstatic parents.

Bursting into a filthy, boarded-up dwelling in Southeast Washington, police found Jeremiah Thate, who had been gone four months, and arrested two women, Linda Faye Stancil, 34, and her mother, Lillie Rose Baynes, 50.

For several months, police had conducted an extensive, but seemingly unproductive, search for Jeremiah, the child of Theresa and Robert Thate. It finally bore fruit when they went to the squalid apartment in the 700 block of Howard Road SE and recovered the baby.

While there can be no doubt that the act of kidnaping any baby, whether black, white or red, is not only a crime but also a horrific act of cruelty, it is particularly interesting that Stancil is black and the baby is white.

While one can only speculate as to motives in this case, I was reminded of an experiment performed 40 years ago that involved black children and dolls.

In that experiment, conducted by Kenneth B. Clark, who wanted to show the devastating effect of enforced legal segregation on the self-perception of black children, Clark offered several black children two dolls, one black and one white, and asked them to select the one they liked most. In a majority of the cases, these children selected the white doll.

Clark's conclusion, that these children had been "definitely harmed in the development of their personalities" as a result of low self-esteem caused by segregation, figured in the 1954 school desegregation decision.

Recently, that experiment was repeated by two psychologists, Darlene Powell-Hopson and Sharon McNichol, who reported their results to the American Psychological Association meeting in New York. Powell-Hopson and McNichol said their results were the same as Clark's -- samples of black children in the United States and in Trinidad and Tobago generally preferred white dolls over black dolls. Moreover, Powell-Hopson reported being disturbed by comments such as those by a boy who pointed to his palm and insisted he was white.

But the new studies carried the earlier study a step further. Seeking to determine whether self-esteem could be raised, Powell-Hopson praised the children who chose black dolls and had them repeat phrases such as "This is a nice doll." The result was a dramatic reversal, and two-thirds of the black children and two-thirds of the white children chose a black doll.

Although critics of these experiments have pointed out that they were of questionable value, even possibly invalidated by more current studies that show no difference between the levels of self-esteem of blacks and whites, these researchers stand by their experiments. "There haven't been any significant changes in American racism," Clark told Time magazine recently. "The rhetoric of racial pride didn't influence the children."

Linda Faye Stancil, who was known to pace her block cradling a doll, probably is not familiar with those experiments.

It may be that self-hatred was a factor, or it may be the case of someone who wanted a baby more than anything in the world and didn't care what race or religion the baby was. We know only that she is accused of kidnaping a baby who happens to be white.

Some people have speculated that she may have become depressed after a miscarriage or that this may be a case of mental illness. But as several psychiatrists have shown us in recent years, even the preferences that mentally ill persons exhibit can have a significant meaning in reality.

But one thing is for sure, despite the astonishing circumstances of this sad case: Kidnaping babies is becoming an all-too-common occurrence. That's why this community is breathing a collective sigh of relief that Jeremiah is at home with his parents where he belongs.