D.C. Mayor Marion Barry had barely taken office eight years ago when struggling friends began telephoning him and his aides with requests for city business.

"Everybody and his brother was calling Marion saying, 'Help me, help me,' " recalled one former aide, a longtime Barry friend. "They courted him, even the ones who had called him a jackass and a 'bama," slang for a hayseed.

The Barry administration consciously introduced a new class of business executives to the world of D.C. government contracts. In doing so, it was no different from new administrations in other cities and states.

Now federal investigators have targeted the Barry network of friends, supporters and business executives in a probe of city contracting. This development, too, is no different from a cycle that has played out elsewhere when a new group rises to power and an aggressive prosecutor sniffs corruption.

The pattern is familiar. But in Washington, the reaction to it has an edge that is less common, one that cuts deeply into the subject of race. For in the two weeks since U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova disclosed the 17-month undercover contracting probe, Washingtonians have seen no indictments; no clear signal that indictments are coming, and no officials or business executives admitting wrongdoing, which all of them deny.

What they have seen, in the newspapers and on television, is a white, Reagan-appointed prosecutor pursuing black officials and their friends. In a city that is 70 percent black, this alone has been enough to stir wide comment and controversy.

Barry, his top aides and the contractors allege that diGenova is fishing for evidence of criminality that is not there. On the sidelines, some community leaders angrily accuse the prosecutor and the press, which has covered the investigation heavily, of racism. Others vent their anger at the supposed wrongdoers who are under scrutiny.

"I find the whole investigation most distasteful," said the Rev. A. Knighton Stanley, pastor of the Peoples Congregational Church in Northwest Washington. "I believe it is politically motivated . . . . It is consciously and unconsciously racially motivated."

Stanley, who plans to preach on the subject to his 1,700-member congregation today, said he is voicing "a frustration that's deep in the black community."

Barry has avoided making direct accusations of racism. But he noted in an interview aired Friday on WRC, Channel 4, that diGenova is a Republican and that "everybody in the top echelons in his office is white." He also said: "Some people don't like the fact that minorities get $150 million in {city} contracts each year . . . . Some people have said to me there are racial motivations" behind the probe.

Robert Woodson, a conservative who heads the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a minority self-help organization, sharply disagreed, and suggested that the attacks on the prosecutor are themselves politically motivated.

"When the Reagan administration cuts the budget, there is outcry," he said. "But when {former Maryland state senator} Tommie Broadwater steals money that is supposed to go to food stamps, and {former D.C. deputy mayor} Ivanhoe Donaldson steals money that is supposed to go to job training, there is no similar public outcry . . . . It's the grass-roots black people who suffer from programs that are inept or corrupt."

A spokesman for diGenova declined comment on the racism charges. John Russell, a Justice Department spokesman, said they are "nonsense." He said that people who allege racism in the U.S. attorney's office "are letting their emotions run away from them."

The backdrop of the debate is the emergence of a new, mostly black in-group that replaced a tight, mostly white circle of business figures and politicians who ran the District until the mid-1970s, when home rule took effect. In those days, the favored white contractors, from garbage haulers to food suppliers, got city contracts year after year.

As late as 1969, the most successful black city contractor got about 0.1 percent of D.C. business. When Walter E. Washington left the mayor's office 10 years later, blacks had 7 percent of city contracts. Barry changed all that, vowing to enforce laws setting aside first 25 percent, then 35 percent, of the city's contracts for minority firms.

Many in the inner circle of minority business owners and the Barry administration have known one another since the civil rights movement and were drawn to the city in its wake. Washington, long considered a mecca of black opportunity, became a social mecca for black professionals. Nearly nine years into the Barry era, these associates do business together, socialize together and support one another politically.

"Whenever you have the emergence of a different political grouping, there's an effort to move the benefit structure and patronage to the friends," said Alvin Thornton, a Howard University political science professor. "Where blacks come to power, there's a sense of urgency in turning the benefit structure toward black folks."

Thornton compares the "buddyism" of the Barry crowd to that of former Maryland governor Marvin Mandel and his political friends of the 1970s -- Jews new to political power once held exclusively by gentiles.

Mandel and some associates were convicted of crimes after an extended corruption investigation. In that scandal, some of Mandel's friends complained that the governor was only doing what generations of state administrations had done. Some of his associates charged that there was an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in the prosecution of Mandel, a complaint dismissed by the prosecutors in that case, at least two of whom were Jewish.

In Washington, federal investigators have been trying to get inside the Barry administration for years, but the current inquiry, involving undercover work, is the first in which they have gotten so close to the loosely knit club of mayoral friends, some of whom have won hefty chunks of D.C. business.

John B. Clyburn's two K Street consulting firms have received $3 million worth of city business in recent years, starting soon after the 1979 appointment of an old friend, Elijah B. Rogers, as Barry's city administrator.

Clyburn, whom Barry described recently as "a very close personal friend," is also a close friend of David E. Rivers, the secretary of the District and a central figure in the case. Investigators are interested in contracts that Clyburn's firms received from the Department of Human Services, an agency Rivers headed.

Another successful contractor in the Barry years is former civil rights activist Roy Littlejohn, who had about $14 million in city contracts last year. Besides being a lawyer and a developer of city land, he sells meat and milk to city agencies and schools, supplies hardware and operates a city-owned nursing home. Friends describe him as a "brilliant" entrepreneur who has moved into unexploited markets.

Clyburn and Littlejohn have been sought out by other business executives seeking city contracts and city real estate deals.

In one 1985 transaction, the city awarded the Portal site at the foot of the 14th Street Bridge in Southwest Washington to a group including Clyburn; Littlejohn; lawyer David W. Wilmot, a close Barry friend who gained publicity last year for giving gifts of clothing to Barry's wife Effi; and another close Barry friend, restaurateur Manny Fernandez. Donaldson was a consultant to the venture, and received $85,000 of the $250,000 fee.

The minority partners in the $600 million office-hotel complex got 5 to 8 percent shares of the project for about $1,000 each, plus some work on the deal.

Critics of D.C. contracting say real estate development rights, more than any other area of contracting, are vulnerable to political pressure. Developers complain that the city's minority equity requirements virtually force them to give away as much as half of their ventures to minorities. Competition for politically influential minority partners is fierce, they say.

Development lawyer R. Robert Linowes said that though he supports the concept of minority involvement, the practice can be unseemly and not necessarily helpful to minorities in general. "There is developing a group of minorities that's grabbing off a great deal of these projects and not necessarily bringing in others and spreading the base," Linowes said.

But some say there is nothing improper about the emergence of a compact professional coterie, in which key players get much of the municipal business.

"I don't see anything wrong with someone who sees an opportunity and seizes it and puts together a management team to do it, even if that person has no experience in that field," said Nancy Flake, director of Howard University's Small Business Development Center. "If aggressive companies get a lot of contracts, that's entrepreneurialism, that's diversification."

On the other hand, R. Calvin Lockridge, a D.C. school board member and frequent Barry critic, said this has led to an atmosphere of "cronyism," which he considers the real issue in the debate, not supposed racism in the prosecutor's office.

Barry's program "hasn't made blacks richer; it's made a handful of blacks richer," he said. "You have this circle of friends who have a smorgasbord of things they can do and they get it all. They become the millionaires, and who else benefits?"

D.C. Council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2) agrees that the city's set-aside programs have helped only a few black business executives. "There's a small group of people who keep getting contracts over and over," he said. "It's all so incestuous."

The Barry initiative is among the strongest minority participation programs in the nation, and many in D.C. government hope it will be their legacy.

An article in Black Enterprise magazine last year effusively praised Barry for his commitment to minority business. He is earning the city a new nickname, the "District of Commerce," the story said.

"For blacks, it is much easier to get political power than it is to get economic power," Barry told the magazine. "Blacks in politics should see to it that more economic power is distributed to the black community . . . . I feel that my job is to see to it that this power is achieved."

The Barry doctrine, and the limited group of professionals thriving under it, has induced "paranoia" among the federal authorities dogging the District, said John Mercer, Rivers' attorney. "It is a small universe," he said. "The people in government know all the contractors."

"There is some prevailing attitude that blacks {who get city contracts} are incompetent, or lack the necessary tools to do the job, so they must use criminal means," he said. "The concept is conveyed that black people in government have their feet on their desks eating Popeye's fried chicken, and having sex in the afternoon."

Lezli Baskerville, executive director of the National Black Leadership Roundtable, composed of leaders of black groups, said that federal investigators have tried hard to "take down a peg" black politicians such as Barry; Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, whose administration has been dogged by investigations; and Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.), charged recently with bank fraud.

DiGenova is "out to get Barry and his entire administration" in part because it would make him look good in the eyes of a conservative administration that is unfriendly to minority contracting programs, she said.

Warren E. Barge Jr., a Detroit area entrepreneur who became a key figure in the probe when he unwittingly formed a D.C. consulting firm with an FBI agent, said investigators and the press are "destroying the black man."

"They have been after Mayor Barry and all the black mayors around the country," Barge said. "And the poor, few little businessmen black kids have to look up to, you are destroying them."

Justice Department spokesman Russell disagrees. "We go after criminal cases and follow the facts wherever they lead," he said. "We don't look at the color, race or national origin of the defendant."