Fourteen cities larger than downtown Richmond are emerging in the Washington suburbs, according to a Washington Post study published in March, and they are located almost as far as geographically possible from the Washington area's middle-class black neighborhoods.

Is that a result of racism?

While it cannot be entirely accidental, history shows, it turns out there are also relatively innocent realities of geography and history that help explain this area's distribution of wealth and ethnicity.

The arguments for racism as the core issue are significant. Take Northern Virginia, for example. Virginia was the home of Massive Resistance to school integration. Gen. Robert E. Lee's personal command was not called The Army of Northern Virginia for nothing.

In the pre-civil rights era, "Virginia was perceived to be more racist" than other Washington area jurisdictions, recalls William Syphax, a longtime civil rights activist, who is black. In those days, when black passengers boarded a bus in Virginia to go to the District, Syphax recalls, they had to sit in the back. When they got on the bus in the District to return to Virginia, they could sit anywhere.

To this day, Fairfax County, the jurisdiction most successful in the last decade in job creation, is 89 percent white. This leads many area blacks to believe as an article of faith that the corporate leaders who create prosperity view an absence of blacks as a plus.

Fairfax's zoning laws have made it difficult for the economically struggling to live there, planners say. Less than 1 percent of the county's land is zoned for multiple-family housing -- one of the most affordable kinds.

This is arguably discrimination based on concerns of class. But the upper classes have sought diligently to separate themselves from the lower classes back to the most ancient civilizations, history shows.The Question of Motive

The question is whether the underlying motive for such zoning practices is racism. In the days when being black and being poor were virtually synonymous, the distinction to many area blacks was irrelevant, but that is no longer the case.

Real estate executives could not be more vehement in their assertions that race plays no role in office location decisions.

Area officials agree that discrimination by race in the sales of housing has declined. "In my opinion, most Realtors are very aware of what the laws are and will attempt to stay away from any discriminatory activity," reports Michael F. Dennis, compliance director of the Montgomery County Human Relations Commission. "Most of our complaints are in rental housing, not in sales, and that's fairly common across the country. The bottom line for sales in most cases is green. It depends on your money."

Fred L. Allen, executive director of the Fairfax County Human Rights Commission, reports that fewer than 5 percent of the discrimination complaints his county handles have to do with housing.

Dennis reports that only about a third of the housing discrimination cases in Montgomery are racial. There have been some years, he says, when cases involving the handicapped have been more numerous.

The Regional Fair Housing Consortium reported in 1986 that in the majority of cases they tested in the Washington area, whites were given preference over blacks in rental housing opportunities.

But Allen points out that almost by definition, people who rent make less money than people who buy. "In Fairfax County, it's a matter of economics. We have no evidence of steering." Steering is the practice of directing potential buyers toward one neighborhood or away from another because of their race.

One prominent Northern Virginia developer suggested that if racism were such an important factor in development decisions, Reston/Herndon and Alexandria would not be two of the fastest-growing emerging cities in the region. Reston has actively recruited black residents for two decades. Alexandria has had a large black population -- most of it lower class -- since the days when it was an important port.The Line That Divides

It is a fact that in East Coast cities, affluent people almost always settle to the north and west of downtown. And they have done so for centuries.

There are reasons for that. In the 1700s, development was governed by how far west a cargo ship could go before reaching the rapids, according to Bob Mitchell, a University of Maryland geographer, and Peirce Lewis, a geographer at Pennsylvania State University. The place at which cargo had to be transferred to wagons, thereby causing the building of docks, warehouses, taverns, and eventually cities, was called the fall line.

To this day, major cities on the East Coast, from Philadelphia to Augusta, Ga., are along that line.

In this area, according to Mitchell, a tobacco-growing population evolved in the Coastal Plain southeast of this line and a wheat-growing culture developed in the Piedmont to the northwest.

Tobacco was lucrative, but it required money and year-round labor. The result on the coastal plain was plantations and slaves, which meant a few rich white people, a small white middle class, and many desperately poor, enslaved blacks.

Long before the Civil War, Prince George's County -- which lies on the Coastal Plain and where tobacco is still grown -- was the most heavily black county in Maryland.

Wheat, by contrast, was not a way to get rich, but it was easier to grow with only family labor, Mitchell explains. So to the northwest, the civilization was marked by farms of modest size with few slaves. More middle-class, whiter.

As the Industrial Revolution took hold in the 1800s, this pattern was reinforced. To avoid the pollution and heat of the cities, expensive homes were built upwind, upriver and uphill, Lewis points out. All over the East Coast, that means north and west. What was left is what the poorer people got.

When white suburbanization -- driven by the newly ubiquitous automobile -- began to explode after World War II, wealthy new suburbanites developed zoning codes and real estate covenants to discourage lower-class neighborhoods in their area. Working-class whites ended up in places they could afford, such as Prince George's County, whose border with Montgomery County runs along the fall line.

Thus, when black suburbanization began in the 1960s, it was almost inevitable that it would head into Prince George's. Montgomery was expensive. The crossing of the Potomac River was viewed by blacks as a voyage not just of miles but of minds -- an almost impenetrable psychological barrier dividing the District from Dixie.

In Prince George's, black comfort levels were raised by the fact that a sizable number of blacks were already there, and Prince George's had the most affordable housing. So it became the forefront of black suburbanization, growing from 14 percent black in 1970, to 37 percent black in 1980, to an estimated 46 percent now.Racial Factors Fading

Today, however, as the University of Chicago's William Julius Wilson predicted in his 1978 book "The Declining Significance of Race," a better indicator than ethnicity of where people will choose to live is class and income.

The number of affluent blacks is increasing rapidly in Montgomery, Fairfax and Prince William counties. In the Virginia counties, the growth coming from outside the region seems to be as much as three times that from Maryland and the District, according to Kenneth F. Billingsley, author of "The New Northern Virginians."

Not being aware of the old local perception that Virginia was taboo for blacks, affluent blacks from outside the region simply moved to suburbs near their new jobs, typically with an expectation that generally proves correct: that racial attitudes in Northern Virginia are not much different from those in any other expensive new suburbs.

Meanwhile, whites in the market for houses costing less than $200,000 are discovering much larger houses for the money in Prince George's than elsewhere, because the land costs less there.

The development of emerging cities in the suburbs is being driven by similar factors. Many of the jobs located in these cities are provided by high-paying information and service firms. For these companies, quick access to an international airport is as important as deepwater ports were to the tobacco interests of the 1700s. As a result, Dulles International Airport has become a magnet pulling development west.

At the same time, recent reports show, Prince George's has been discovered. The county has joined the big leagues in office construction. Bowie, Laurel, Greenbelt/New Carrollton and PortAmerica could become new emerging cities within a decade. Predominantly black middle-class areas inside the Capital Beltway also are enjoying a renaissance.