Six months after the arrest of Mayor Marion Barry sent a shock wave between Washington's black and white communities, the city is undergoing a painful self-examination of racial tensions quite unlike any other in its recent history.

Of all the repercussions of the mayor's Jan. 18 arrest at the Vista Hotel -- its dramatic impact on election-year politics and the District's national and international standing -- few have been as deeply felt as the effect on relations between the city's majority black population and whites who live and work here, according to leaders in both communities.

While a small number of observers say the District is near a boiling point racially, most longtime students of the city's community life take a milder view, discounting the likelihood of major race-related violence or rioting in the near future.

But they do agree the Barry case has so illuminated existing racial tensions and misunderstanding that it will be some time before Washington achieves a collective sense of racial cooperation.

The implications of a heightened sense of polarization are enormous, affecting not only the citywide elections for mayor, a congressional seat and D.C. Council this fall, but the everyday ways in which whites and blacks interact.

"There's sort of a silence, a noncommunication, now between my white friends and myself," said the Rev. Joshua Hutchins Jr., senior pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Northwest. "That signifies to me that relationships have been affected. You don't know what to say {about Barry} because you feel like what you might say could be damaging."

Barry himself has for months cast his case in starkly racial terms. As early as February, when a federal grand jury issued the first criminal indictments against him, the mayor said he was the victim of a "political lynching." Since then, Barry has intensified his rhetoric, complaining that he is the latest in a series of black elected officials to be unfairly targeted for prosecution by the U.S. government.

Others, ranging from activist ministers such as George Augustus Stallings Jr., the leader of a breakaway Catholic congregation, to NAACP Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks, have echoed Barry's complaint. Jesse L. Jackson, who moved to Washington last summer and is running for a shadow Senate post to lobby Congress for D.C. statehood, said the Barry case was part of "an ugly pattern" of "white judicial leadership attacking black political leadership."

"The U.S. attorney is a Republican and is white, appointed by the president to overlook the city's 70 percent black" population, Jackson said during a recent appearance on the "Larry King Live" television program. "There are a lot of political suspicions built into that."

Barry said last week that he was not responsible for creating racial friction in Washington, adding that his four-week-long trial on perjury and drug charges had heightened those feelings of mistrust that already existed between the races.

"This trial has brought to the surface, I think, a simmering amount of polarization and racism that was already there," Barry told radio station WHUR-FM. "We didn't just start this polarization. It's been going on for some time."

Yet, even for an urban society still divided along lines of color and class, what Washington witnessed in recent weeks was a different and, for many residents, an unsettling racial dynamic. As testimony began in the mayor's trial and the videotape of his arrest was shown repeatedly on television, the sights and sounds of racism burst out in the open:

In some offices, whites laughed at the sight of the mayor of the nation's capital on FBI videotape, preening before a hotel room mirror one minute, disgraced and in handcuffs the next. At a downtown rally for Barry, a young white man in the crowd said the mayor should resign -- and was promptly punched in the face repeatedly by a black man until police separated the two.

When David A. Clarke, the white chairman of the D.C. Council and a mayoral candidate, was introduced at a Convention Center rally for black South African leader Nelson Mandela, he was booed by members of the mostly black audience.

Meanwhile, some Barry supporters invoked potent symbols of racial hatred in defense of the mayor. One supporter, Nation of Islam official Abdul Alim Muhammad, said the news media was "no better than some gang of rednecked, tobacco-chewing Ku Klux Klan" members. Another, former civil rights leader James Bevel, dismissed Barry's critics as "crackers."

Even New Yorkers got into the act. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who gained national notoriety during several racial controversies in that city, told a Washington audience that Barry had been persecuted because he was "a strong black man that stood up for black people."

Former New York mayor Edward I. Koch, appearing on radio station WRC-AM, attacked Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, a leading Barry supporter, as "a white-hater" and "a dangerous man," and pronounced the mayor "clearly guilty as sin" even though the jury was still hearing the case.

Beneath the swirl of rallies, news conferences, talk shows and other public events, race relations in the workaday world of Washington assumed a distinct chill.

For instance, at one downtown law firm, some black clerical employees brought small portable televisions to work to watch the airing of the Vista videotape. Just before it was shown, several white lawyers in the office clustered around a set to see the history-making tape. One of the lawyers asked the secretary there if she minded his watching.

"You can watch this," she replied, according to a colleague. "But don't say anything."

Like the District itself, the race for mayor has been affected and occasionally dominated by concerns about the current state of race relations. Hardly a candidates' forum goes by without the office-seekers being asked for specific ways in which they would bring the city's diverse communities together.

Some of the Democratic candidates have offered proposals to unite blacks and whites; John Ray has called for an annual Unity Day celebration and cultural exchange programs between neighborhoods, and Charlene Drew Jarvis has said she would create a new mayoral commission on race relations to end the current "wave of recriminations" between races.

However, for the most part, the candidates have been unwilling to confront head-on the racially charged rhetoric of recent months. "It's a no-win situation," said Joslyn N. Williams, the local party chairman. "The best thing to do is by your silence show you do not agree with that."

If race relations have been traumatized by Barry's arrest and trial, it may be because of the fundamentally different ways in which large segments of the black and white communities have viewed the case, according to several analysts. Neither community is monolithic, but most whites had invested far less emotionally in Barry the political leader than did his fellow blacks.

"The day the tape was shown, you looked at the faces of blacks and saw them very upset and sad, but some white males, for example, were rather gleeful about it," said Joyce A. Ladner, a sociologist and vice president of Howard University. "For blacks, it was not a laughing matter -- it was awful, with broad implications of how other blacks are perceived. You wonder: Are these the negative images that others have of us?"

Ladner and others also believe an ambivalence about Barry among some blacks -- an often-bewildering mixture of anger, embarrassment and other emotions -- has spilled over to affect relations with whites. "It's all kind of ambiguous," Ladner said. "A lot of people are angry at the mayor for his behavior, but angrier and angrier at how it's playing out.

"It's visceral; it hits you in the gut," she added. "And it does not placate race relations in this town. It has incited some passions in the city that might not otherwise have been incited."

At the same time, though, the city continues to be the picture of relative calm, with no immediate sign of the incidents of extreme racial brutality that Boston, New York and other cities experienced over the years. "Racially, D.C. is an oasis," said Charles J. Moreland, a private industry lobbyist who is running for one of the city's new shadow congressional seats.

Moreland, who is black, contrasted the Washington of 1990 with Griffin, Ga., of his childhood, where he watched Ku Klux Klan members parade through the main streets of town.

"Here, there's still segregation in some ways, but we work together," said Moreland, who moved to the District in 1966. "Compared to other places, we're a lot better off in terms of how we get along."

Nevertheless, a small number of political and community leaders warn that if black-white relations are strained much further, perhaps by a harsh verdict against Barry or inflammatory rhetoric on either side, the District could be torn by hate violence.

Ron Richardson, a politically active labor union leader who is white, said he believes the city is "about an inch away from violence. People are feeling pent up and frustrated." Added Jackson: "We're close to broken glass and blood in the streets . . . . We're very close to the red button. I say this not as an alarmist, but as one who has walked among those who have pain."

The view that conditions in Washington are ripe for rioting does not appear to be widely held, even among those who believe that race relations have been hurt in the past six months. Other community leaders believe that the conclusion of the trial -- regardless of its outcome -- and the installation of Barry's successsor will hasten a healing process between whites and blacks.

However, few believe any healing will occur overnight. Hutchins, for one, said, "It's going to take a couple of years of new leadership that is problem-free," and even that is likely to suffer "some continued skepticism on the part of some people."

Ladner too says it will be a while before Washington regains what she described as the "restrained peace" it once knew.

"All of us are going to have to reconstruct race relations," Ladner said, "no matter how we feel about the mayor personally."

WHAT MAYORAL CANDIDATES SAY ABOUT RACE RELATIONS DEMOCRATS

David A. Clarke: "Barry's tactics, in my mind, have been designed to increase polarization. I have great faith that this city will survive Barry."

Sharon Pratt Dixon: "I saw racial tensions in the '60s, but this is something deeper this time. What we are about as a total community is in trouble."

Walter E. Fauntroy: "People float between anger and depression. My distress is we're not having a clear and rational discussion of why people are anxious and fearful."

Charlene Drew Jarvis: "I grew up in the Washington that was very segregated, but it was neither hostile nor suspicious. There's a great deal of suspicion now, and it's unhealthy."

John Ray: "We are not one Washington, D.C. We're separated along racial and economic lines . . . . Obviously, the trial has brought it to the forefront in a much more direct way." REPUBLICANS

Maurice T. Turner Jr.: "I don't know whether it's a boiling point, but the whole ordeal has heightened tensions."