The church in Southeast Washington was full, standing room only. The crowd--young and old, nearly all black--had come out Monday night for a rare protest rally. Not since former D.C. mayor Marion Barry had launched his amazing reelection bid after being "set up" by the white power structure had a crowd like this been so worked up.

The reason for the fervor this time: the specter of three white women on the D.C. Council opposing a black mayor's nomination of another black man to sit on the board of a predominantly black university.

Like cherries on some racialized slot machine, the alignment of Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) and Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) hit the black politics jackpot and sent hundreds of protesters streaming into Young's Memorial Church of Christ Holiness on a weekday night.

Such is the power of racial symbolism, with the very whiteness of these particular council members obscuring other possible motives for their actions.

In a plaintive letter to D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), Timothy A. Jenkins, a D.C. resident and president of a company called Unlimited Visions Inc., warned against allowing "racial polarization" to result from a vote where a bloc of whites appeared opposed to a black mayoral nominee for no apparent reason.

"While we can condemn the use of 'racism' as the lazy man's tool of political analysis," Jenkins wrote, "it remains a fact that perceptions can inadvertently become realities, if and when they are met with an ambiguous response."

The only way I know to keep such perceptions from becoming reality is to change the perception. If Sharon Ambrose were black, for instance, then her initial opposition to the nomination of the Rev. Willie Wilson would be understandable in purely political terms: He had strongly backed her opponent, the Rev. Augustus Stallings III, in her bid to win reelection last year.

As for Carol Schwartz, it should be obvious by now that she is no racist. She speaks for too many black people who are as scared of Willie Wilson as some white people are.

Wilson is a progressive Afrocentrist. His church, Union Temple Baptist, was among the first in Washington to ordain women, to celebrate Kwanzaa, to start rite-of-passage programs for black boys, to do AIDS outreach and to help drug addicts and alcoholics.

He is an outspoken critic of racism and deplores the District's educational, political and economic status quo. That makes a lot of people uncomfortable--white, black and, as Wilson would say, Negroes, too.

Kathy Patterson, who represents the city's whitest ward, seems to have a good political reason for opposing Wilson. To hear her tell it, she was betrayed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). Apparently Williams told her he would not submit Wilson's name, then did it anyway.

That's an insult, if true, and being lied to trumps race.

But back to reality. These are not black women. They are all white, and each one has a tendency to display a kind of arrogance that seems unique to privileged white people in America.

Patterson has even gone so far as to blame Williams for creating a "racial problem" by having the gall to nominate Wilson in the first place. It should be noted that Patterson represents the same elite crowd that always blamed Marion Barry for "playing the race card."

All we needed to do, as they saw it, was get rid of Barry and the city's race problem would go away.

Well, Barry has left. But the race problem hasn't. Now they want to blame Anthony Williams or Willie Wilson or anybody but white people like themselves.

Racial perceptions don't just affect black-white relationships, either. The way black people have come to deal with one another is probably even more convoluted. Imagine this: If race were not an issue, Williams probably would not have nominated Wilson in the first place. (Wilson is quite capable of inciting a potent UDC student protest against the mayor if he reneges on promises to improve the school.)

But the risk was worth it. For in naming Wilson, Williams found a way to quiet some of the hurtful talk that he was not "black enough."

As for Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), chairman of the council's Education Committee, there is no doubt that he would have voted against Wilson if race were not an issue.

When Chavous was the front-runner in the last mayoral race, Wilson endorsed Williams. It was a tide-turning event, and humiliating, too.

But Chavous, like Williams, cannot afford to have his racial bona fides questioned by black people. So, by supporting Wilson in the face of white female opposition, Williams gets his race card stamped and Chavous keeps his from being revoked.

Yesterday, in the aftermath of the protest rally, Ambrose broke ranks with Patterson and Schwartz and voted "with protest" for Wilson. (His 6,500-member church is in her ward.) Wilson's nomination was later approved by the full D.C. Council, which is majority white, on an 11 to 2 vote.

There was celebration of a victory of sorts. But the truth is, racial perceptions, illusions and ghosts overwhelmed all political sophistication.

And what we are left with is a people who still yearn for effective political organization, although they can be counted on to congregate at the local church for the next race fight du jour.