AS THE TRAGEDY of Atlanta lingers on without solutions, the feelings of grief, exasperation and suspicion it has generated become more intense. Lurking in the discussions of this monstrous chain of events are raw questions of race. Every child who has been murdered was black; there have been 20 deaths; yet no one has been caught. What can it mean? Can it mean, as some have suggested, that these deaths count for relatively little with officialdom or that white America as a whole is unmoved by them?

There are two distinct aspects to the question -- and two distinct answers. We will begin with the aspect most in the news -- in some part, unfortunately, because of Mayor Barry's reckless comments on the subject. It is the question of whether the effort at all levels of government to apprehend the killers has a) been a comparatively lackadaisicalk, second-gear affair, b) therefore been unsuccessful where it otherwise would have succeeded by now and c) been this way because the victims were black children, not white.

The answer to this three-part question is a resounding No. To assume or assert the opposite is a disgusting libel of those law enforcement and other public officials, black and white, who have been working so hard to put an end to the carnage in Atlanta. As mayor of this city, Marion Barry should know something about the difficulties and disappointments public officials face in bringing crises to an end, in making right things happen. He also knows how little it helps and how much it can hurt to feed false suspicions of the most revolting kind of conduct by the people in charge. Yet in a speech to some 2,000 listeners who had come to a church here for a memorial service for the missing or murdered children, Mayor Barry fed precisely such suspicions through his comments. "A certain mood exitsts in this country, encouraged by the leadership, that it is all right to do anything to black people," he said, proceeding to cite federal assistance sought by Atlanta, and then saying, "Now I maintain that if those were 21 white people, we would have no problem (getting the federal government involved)."

Our own perception is that there has not been official indifference or, God help us, a sense in any quarter responsible for or concerned with the investigation that "it is all right" to murder black children -- and that this is acceptable to "the leadership." But that brings us to the second and quite different subject of argument: the degree and amount of nationwide public attention to the crimes. That attention is mounting now, along with the death toll. Would this have become a matter of national preoccupation sooner if there had been different victims?

Surely in honesty it must be said that while there is no real accounting for the way in which the press, the public, the churches and the various other parties to the process impart a kind of A - Number One, top-of-the-news quality to an issue, there are circumstances in which you can easily imagine this one's having been much more central, much sooner. And one such set of circumstances on which it is fair to speculate is if the children had been rich or white or both and let us say form Beverly Hills or Westchester County and had been disappearing and turning up dead at hideous Atlanta rate. Yes, (for better and for worse) there probably would have been much more public attention -- including melodramatic, sensationalist and profit-seeking attention -- trained on the crimes earlier.

This is a fact that needs to be faced up to. Not as a goad to an investigation that needs no goading, and not as a fad or distraction or an outlet for souvenir sales, but rather as an act of reassurance by one part of the community to another, much more needs to be registered by white Americans on this subject.Their empathy and horror and determination to bring the slayings to a halt need to be made plainer. Children are being killed -- our children . What needs to be asserted and reasserted, because it is true, is that there are no black and white divisions of response on the part of the public, no gradations of feeling or of revulsion or of commitment to bring this terrible nightmare to an end.