Peter Greene thought it was a joke when he heard that D.C. Mayor Marion Barry had been arrested in a drug sting. When he realized it wasn't, he blamed Barry. "His behavior has caught up with him, and it's because of stupidity on his part," Greene recalled thinking. "Black leaders have to be squeaky clean, and he should have known that."

Over the ensuing months, Greene's view has broadened. Now he believes the U.S. attorney was overzealous in pursuit of a case against the mayor, and he questions the amount of resources used. He is bothered by the news coverage, which he says has been excessive and biased.

Greene also believes that because of the structure of the District's judicial system -- where "you have a predominantly white federal system running a black colony" -- race played a central role in the Barry investigation.

"In this town, it is hard to separate Marion Barry from the impact this case will have on the black race," said Greene, 37, a dermatologist who lives in Mount Pleasant. "On the one hand, you don't want to be looked at as condoning his behavior, which may or may not have been illegal. On the other hand, you don't want to be part of the white lynch mob."

Greene's ambivalence is one of the things separating black and white Washingtonians as Barry's trial unfolds. It is an ambivalence that polls have found in all segments of the District's black community, including among those who, like Greene, are middle class and well educated.

While two-thirds of all whites interviewed in a recent Washington Post poll said they believed Barry had "only himself to blame" for his legal woes, one-quarter of the blacks felt that way.

Another quarter agreed with the statement that federal prosecutors were "out to get Marion Barry any way they could."

A plurality of blacks, 44 percent, said both views expressed their sentiments, compared with 30 percent among whites.

The opinions suggested by those findings often are heard when black Washingtonians gather. They were expressed in a series of casual conversations with 17 blacks in recent days around the city.

Most agreed that Barry has done a lot for the city. They were divided on the desirability of averting the trial through a plea bargain. Two thought Barry should resign.

"Yeah, I think the FBI overstepped its grounds, because he was a target," Bill Brabble, a 35-year-old Northwest Washington accountant, said after a game of golf at the Langston golf course on Benning Road NE. "But that still doesn't make the things he did right. I really consider the man an idiot, when it all boils down to it.

"I think he should save the city the money and the grief of a trial and just resign and bow out of the situation," Brabble said. "He's kind of worn out his welcome."

District resident Chanel Walker, 31, an accountant for a construction firm, interviewed at a Bethesda department store, agreed.

"I think he should let someone else be mayor," Walker said, "because his track record is embarrassing for him, his family and as a politician. If he decides to run again, they are going to find something else."

Among those interviewed, however, there was criticism of the actions of U.S. Attorney Jay B. Stephens.

Stephens has defended his actions as in keeping with his job. "I think it is fair to say that the operation conducted last night was an operation that complies with the law, that there is no entrapment there, that it was, too, scrupulously fair to the subject of that investigation, Mr. Barry, and it was carried out in an evenhanded and fair manner," Stephens said on Jan. 20 after formally charging Barry with one misdemeanor count of possessing crack cocaine.

But many said a central reason they refused to abandon Barry was the conduct of the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"You know what this whole bust and trial is like? It's like a white version of wilding," a mindless, gang assault, said Deborah Atkinson, 36. "It's a little more sophisticated and cerebral, but it's their {whites'} version of wilding. I think Jay Stephens is overstepping his bounds.

"Why is the government spending all this money on one person? Why?" Atkinson asked.

Her answer: "Marion Barry has let black business, for the first time, get a slice of the pie. Before that, we weren't even getting crumbs . . . . White folks don't like dealing with black folks, especially when they are authority figures, and they had to deal with Marion Barry, smile in his face. They don't like that."

When asked what she thought when she first heard of Barry's Jan. 18 arrest at the Vista Hotel, Atkinson, a native Washingtonian who manages a medical office in the Petworth area of Northwest, said she was "appalled" by the conduct of the mayor, for whom she voted once. Now, she said, she is more upset by the conduct of the federal government.

The ambivalence expressed by Atkinson, Greene and most others interviewed results in part from black people's often conflicting identities, said Na'im Akbar, past president of the National Association of Black Psychologists.

"When we look at the Marion Barry incident our African side empathizes with him and runs to his protection," said Akbar, a professor of psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

"We see him as a victim, another black man under siege, both internal and external. There's also empathy that sees him as a part of another instance of trying to bring down a black leader.

"The other side is the American mind. That same American mind is embarrassed. There is a sense that he let us down. That he did not make the successful step into being the super black man that America expects of us and that we, often unfairly, expect of ourselves."

Not all of those interviewed have resolved their conflicting thoughts about Barry in the same way.

Theresa Harris and her husband attended last Sunday's prayer service for the mayor at Metropolitan Baptist Church in Shaw. A junior high school librarian, Harris, 40, said she is forgiving of Barry's acknowledged use of crack cocaine.

"I think the majority of black people realize he has the weakness. But he has done so much for blacks in this city in terms of jobs and ending discriminatory practices, that they're taking the lesser of two evils," Harris said.

She dismissed the other mayoral candidates, preferring, she said, a "rehabilitated mayor who has used crack who supports blacks."

Harris said her view of the trial is swayed by her belief that Barry was targeted for proseuction because he is black and his administration empowered blacks.

"I don't think I could sit on that jury. I don't think I could listen objectively to the prosecution," Harris said. "I think I'd have a predetermined verdict."

Patricia Sumpter, 31, of Northeast Washington, voted for Barry twice and said she was "totally shocked" when she heard about the mayor's arrest. But she supports him and would vote for him again.

"He's man enough to admit he was smoking it," said Sumpter, head cashier at Woodward & Lothrop's parking lot in Bethesda. "And everyone should be able to seek help, be given a second chance. It's not racism on my part to believe that."

Most of those interviewed opposed ending the trial through a plea bargain, as some city political leaders, including Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D) and Jesse L. Jackson, have suggested to avert the toll a trial might take on the city's psyche.

"The city's already torn apart, so a trial tearing it more is nothing new," Atkinson said. "As a citizen, Barry has his right to a fair trial. I don't think the average citizen would make a sacrifice to go to jail for the good of the city. Why should he do that? I don't think anybody in their right mind would."

There also was no support among those interviewed for resignation as a part of a plea bargain. "I think he should go to trial," said Sumpter, the cashier. "Let the people vote him out, not the courts."

Yet the ambivalence remained among some when the question turned to future political support for Barry.

"The charges against him are serious, and I'd think twice about voting for him again," Atkinson said. "But at the same time, its just the way the government has gone about proving these charges are true. It leaves a bad taste."

Greene's views were similar. "I'm not willing to say I wouldn't vote for him again," he said. "If I did," he added with a wry laugh, "it would be in part as an electoral black-lash."