It is ironic but instructive that Black Muslim Minister Louis Farrakhan has re-ignited an emotional debate here between races and religions at the very time when Americans have finally come together on a policy conveying our national condemnation of racial apartheid in South Africa.
The protest movement against the evil of apartheid was renewed by Randall Robinson and his allies immediately after last year's election. Growing numbers of other black leaders joined him, and the campaign spread quickly through the white civil- rights community, the liberal politicians and then the conservatives.
Finally last week, President Reagan came along with a strong statement of criticism of South Africa and an executive order, which underlined the seriousness of America's position. If his economic sanctions fell short of those recommended by the bipartisan congressional resolution, they were still a big step beyond the administration's previous policy.
Most Americans probably view all this as evidence of the healthy condition of racial relations in this country and feel the warm glow of self-satisfaction in the moral superiority of the United States to other nations.
That smugness is hardly justified by the bitterness engendered here last week as the black and white communities quarreled emotionally over the speech that Farrakhan was scheduled to deliver -- and did deliver -- to a mass rally last Saturday night.
Ever since he flashed into the public's consciousness as a campaigner for Jesse L. Jackson last year, Farrakhan has been a frightening figure to white Americans -- especially to Jews, who are often the target of his inflammatory rhetoric. The anger and controversy increased when Farrakhan used a recent appearance before a cheering crowd of some 10,000 people in Washington, D.C., to voice further slurs on the "wickedness" of the Jews.
Jewish groups here enlisted clergymen of other faiths and politicians of both parties to condemn Farrakhan's local appearance. When Los Angeles' black mayor, Tom Bradley (D), said he would not speak out against Farrakhan before the event, he was criticized by many of his longtime supporters in the politically influential Jewish community.
As it turned out, Farrakhan modulated his message of bigotry here, condemning the "wicked hypocrisy" of Israel, but emphasizing separatism as a way to "get up from the foot of your masters and say, 'I am a free man.' After the speech, Bradley said his decision to remain silent and support the private negotiations for restraint on Farrakhan's part was only a "partial success" and condemned the "racism, hatred . . . and bigotry" he said he found in the speech.
That does not begin to dissipate the bitterness or to diminish the significance of the dispute over Farrakhan.
What the man and his movement bring uncomfortably to light is the fact that there is still an enormous distance between the races in both perceptions and realities, and great anger and fear as well, in this supposedly integrated and tolerant society.
When the 14,000 blacks who heard Farrakhan here listen to his talk of "Economic Rebirth," they respond positively to a man vowing to reduce the chronic and growing economic gap between the races.
When whites read of Farrakhan's effort to make and sell consumer products in the black economic market, they see a faker who has obtained an interest-free $5 million loan from Libya's radical dictator Muammar Qaddafi and who will probably use it to stir up trouble in the United States.
The opposing white and black responses to Farrakhan are not the only evidence that we have a bit of South Africa-style polarization in our mist. We are foolish to ignore the implications of the fact that over 90 percent of the blacks opposed the re-election of a president supported by over 60 percent of the whites.
As a white whose black friend and colleague Milton Coleman has been threatened by Farrakhan for his honesty as a reporter, I know how I react. The Farrakhan I saw in Philadelphia last year was a racist demagogue surrounded by a cold-eyed, robotic security force as chilling as any I have encountered west of the Iron Curtain.
But I have seen other racist demagogues playing presidential politics, and they were white. George Wallace has recanted. But Jesse Helms still serves in the Senate, with unaltered views, and he dominates not a minor movement called the Nation of Islam but one of our 50 sovereign states.
Like our racial counterparts in South Africa, we whites are frightened when we see blacks responding to a man who says, "I am a free black man, and I answer to no one but God."
But like their counterparts in South Africa, American blacks judge that the greater threat to justice comes from the race in power. To be honest, if I were black, would I not fear a powerful white majority supporting a government that says the most important civil-rights issue is whether whites are being disadvantaged by affirmative-action goals and targets for minorities?
Farrakhan himself is no more than a footnote to history -- like Wallace or Helms. But he reminds us of a racial gulf that we cannot ignore. And he warns us not to be too smug about the evils of South Africa.