The controversy surrounding the arrest, trial, conviction and sentencing of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry brought to the surface many deeply held racial beliefs. In the wake of this period, a black family and a white family agreed to talk to The Washington Post about their views on race relations and their perceptions of people of a different color. Above are Shireen Dodson and Leroy Fykes, with daughter Skylar; at left, Bob and Sarah Steck. Both families live in Northwest Washington.

Bob Steck plays squash with a man "who usually just beats the hell out of me."

Steck, of Chevy Chase in the District, is white. The friend, Eugene Flood, is black. Steck sees Flood, one of his few black friends, while on frequent business trips to New York.

Joker that he is, Steck would like one day to walk onto the squash court and ask Flood to give him extra points "on the basis of affirmative action."

Steck thinks this is funny. But this usually loquacious man who writes speeches for a living wouldn't dare say it.

Something about race relations, that American predicament that historically has placed blacks and whites at odds and defined the unspoken terms of racial engagement, tells him to hold his tongue. "I'm fearful he would take it the wrong way," Steck said. And Steck is right. Upon hearing the joke, Flood said, "I wouldn't consider that funny."

The separation of the races, and the miscues, misperceptions and animosity it breeds, is the personal dilemma of race for Steck, 46, and Sarah Steck, 39, his wife.

It is frustrating to the Stecks that in their relations with blacks they think they have to tread so carefully. They don't know many blacks, so when they are around them they are not quite sure what to say about race, how far to go, whether they will be perceived as racist.

If they had more black friends, the Stecks said, race issues probably would be less troubling for them. But they feel it would be impractical to take extraordinary steps to meet blacks when that is not what they do to make friends in general. And by virtue of the traditional black-white separation, when they meet people who become friends, those people almost always are white.

Bob, a Texan by birth, is a freelance corporate speechwriter. Sarah, originally from Andover, Mass., is a corporate consultant on personnel issues. The couple moved to Chevy Chase from New York 4 1/2 years ago. They have two children, Vanessa, 5, who attends Lafayette Elementary School, and Nicole, 11 months.

The Stecks, who describe themselves as "bleeding-heart liberals," said they were willing to discuss their views about race and experiences with blacks because they sense a pervasive reluctance in society to confront the perceptual and institutional barriers that separate the races.

Bob said he almost misses the 1950s and 1960s, when racism was codified and could easily be spotted. Sure, there was widespread racial turmoil then, but at least people talked about race and the battle lines were clear.

"You were confronted with a choice, you were confronted with the issue," Bob said. He was a student at the University of Texas in those days and joined demonstrations against the segregated bars around campus.

But now, "There is not an obvious target, there's not a clear place to push up against as there was when it was a matter of the Jim Crow laws," he said.

"It's become more complicated now. Now it's a question of, given past historic injustice, how do you correct that? And also, because we're running up against much more obdurate institutional barriers and cultural barriers that are not enshrined in the law, it is not so clear what you do to change that."

"It's the invisible problem now," Sarah said. "Nobody's making noise about it any more."

"The noise that is being made is noise that you could write off as the problem of crime," said Bob, referring to whites who are angry about crime perpetrated by blacks. Other kinds of racial "noise," he said, include "welfare" or "Marion Barry" or "affirmative action," which they have heard discussed in contexts that, to them, connote something negative about blacks.

The Stecks do not know how their children will internalize all this complex racial baggage. They watch with concern as Vanessa's racial perceptions take shape.

One day last year, Vanessa announced that two of her playmates "have brown skin," Sarah said. The comment sent up a red flag.

"My God, is she soaking up racism from the enviroment?" Bob wondered. "What's the right response?" asked Sarah.

Later, Sarah asked Vanessa what skin color means.

The 5-year-old said, according to Sarah, "God made their skin a different color, but their hearts are still the same." The Stecks were reassured by her response and by the fact that the "brown" children became her closest playmates.Racism Never Overt

Sarah was raised in the Boston suburbs. Her father was a business consultant. Her mother was a housewife who later became a teacher. Sarah attended all-white schools, but her best friend growing up was a girl from the only black family in town, she said.

Race was never discussed in her home, Sarah said. "I never got a feeling of disrespect or 'blacks are bad.' It was more, 'It's not relevant to our lives.' "

Bob is from San Antonio. His father was an office clerk; his mother was a teacher. His high school was mostly Hispanic and black; whites were a minority. The mix was volatile; fights were frequent.

Bob's parents forbade anyone to use the word "nigger" in their home, partly to avoid offending their part-time housekeeper, who was black. But Bob and his brother also were forbidden to date across race lines.

The message was never overt or vicious racism, said Bob, but that "the lines were there and they were not to be crossed in any intimate kind of way."

Sarah and Bob met in 1976 while Bob was at Harvard University on a Rockefeller Fellowship. Sarah, who received her undergraduate degree from Trinity College and a master's degree from Boston University, was working as a counselor at a Boston clinic.

Soon after marrying, the couple moved to Pittsburgh, then to New York. Along the way, Bob worked for various corporations as a speechwriter and Sarah worked in an employee assistance program, then as a consultant. They moved to the District when Bob took a position as speechwriter at the Federal National Mortgage Association. He since has gone freelance. With a partner, Sarah has started a consulting company. Conflicting Emotions in the Barry Case

When the Stecks talk about the controversy surrounding the arrest, conviction and sentencing of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, it is clear they each have conflicting emotions.

At dinner parties with their white friends, they have heard a lot of Barry-bashing. It makes them uncomfortable. Assigning singular blame to Barry is too narrow a reaction to so complex a situation, they say. "That's too easy," Sarah said.

On the other hand, Bob said, "Is it racist because a white person cannot understand the extraordinary pressures that a Marion Barry is under that a white politician is not under?"

Bob said that he was angered at the fact that Barry seemed to agree with the racially polarizing statements of others and used them "to help solve a personal problem."

"I was certainly angry at times about the way he seemed to be so flagrant in his abuses," Sarah said. "But what I can distinguish is I don't feel that I felt that way because he was black . . . . No mayor, in my opinion, has the right to be doing these things." She said she also was angered that Barry "failed so drastically" in being a role model for black children.

The Stecks said they tried to see the ways in which racism may have played a role in the case, as well as look at Barry's personal responsibility for his actions. They tend to think both things were at work simultaneously.

But when they have vocalized these thoughts to other whites, sometimes the response is that "anybody who starts talking about white racism as a background factor in the Marion Barry case is simply trying to let him off or is not accepting the premise that people are responsible for their own actions," Bob said.

That is not their view, but "that's what people immediately hear," he said. "So it's almost become impossible to talk about this any more. I get really bloody frustrated about it."

Bob laid out what he called a hypothesis about racism: "All of us whites are racist in ways that we're not even conscious of in the ways that we perceive the world . . . . It seems to me not a bad idea to start with that premise, if you're white, and see where it leads you."

It is not racial stereotypes Bob is talking about. Exploring those is like asking, "Does a fish understand the notion of water?" Instead, he said, whites and blacks see the world differently. Blacks know this; whites know it to a lesser extent.

"It's easy for whites to ignore the fact that blacks experience a substantially different reality, daily, than do whites," he said. "It's easy for whites to ignore that because we're the majority and we basically constructed that reality, consciously or unconsciously."

Sarah considers herself at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding blacks. They are, she said, "unfamiliar" people.

"I have never seen things the way a black person can see them," she said. "That's an obvious fact. But I think that if I grew up in a very mixed neighorhood where I was really around a lot of blacks all the time I would just have a better sense of what it feels like to be a black person." Crossing the Color Line

Although it is among the whitest of District neighborhoods, Chevy Chase seemed racially diverse to the Stecks.

"For me to look around on my own block and see three or four black families, to me that's pretty good," Sarah said.

They moved to that Northwest neighborhood because they wanted Vanessa to go to a good public school; they wanted a large house with a yard; they wanted to live in the city, not the suburbs; they wanted racial diversity. They relied on a real estate agent, who is white, who told them that Chevy Chase was the place.

The Stecks became friends with two of the black families that lived nearby, both of whom had daughters that became Vanessa's playmates. One family was from Zaire in Central Africa. Sarah socialized with the wife frequently, but that family has moved out of the country. The other family is an interracial couple. Sarah said she is good friends with the white wife; Bob and the black husband are less close. Vanessa's "brown" friends are the children of these two couples.

In addition, Sarah has a few black acquaintances through work. And along with Flood, Bob has a few other black friends. But most of their friends, including those they are closest with, are white.

The Stecks said they think they ought to have more black friends. "In my adult life, I've tried to pursue it," she said. "But I also haven't made it my most important goal. I haven't done things out of the ordinary to meet black friends, but I've always tried to put myself in situations and always been very receptive to making friends that were black or from other ethnic groups."

Said Bob, "We don't go looking for blacks who might be friends. We find our friends wherever we find them, sort of environmentally, in the general ambiance."

Bob and his black friend, Flood, met at the Harvard Club in New York 18 months ago. Flood, 35, a currency trader at a major New York investment bank, describes their friendship as "casual," revolving around sports. For that reason, he said, there never seemed a need for race to be an issue.

For Bob, though, he thought about it enough to worry about whether he could even crack a joke. "There's a certain concern that you're going to somehow give unintentional offense," he said, by appearing to be "coming from a place that thinks blacks are somehow inferior or something like that. It's very delicate."

Bob would like to deepen the friendship and has several times extended an invitation for Flood, who also has two young children, to visit with the Stecks when they came to Washington. So far, the Floods have not made the trip. Flood said it was a scheduling problem. Still, Bob wondered if race was a factor.

"I wonder, first, whether they suspect that I didn't seriously intend it or {that I'm} just sort of making a rhetorical gesture, or whether their fear would be that if they did accept it would be somehow an uncomfortable situation for them," he said.

Sarah said that in her contacts with blacks she, too, is self-conscious about race. "Like you have two people and someone comes and puts an overlay of black and white over them," which means that not only two people are interracting, but two histories as well.

As a white person in that equation, she said she thinks it is her responsibility to overcome the race issue "because I'm the one who has been perceived as the oppressive race, and it's true that we have been."

But trying to overcome it sometimes is difficult.

Sarah dated a couple of black students during a year she attended Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, N.Y. These were her first adult experiences with blacks. But those were revolutionary times and the blacks on campus would not admit whites into their circle, at least not in public.

"My being white was the end of the conversation. That was it. And yet someone who was black would like me enough to go out with me, but not to talk to me in front of their friends."

Sarah described the year as traumatic. She did not understand the racial dynamic at play, and still doesn't. Issues That Won't Go Away

One of the most consistent contacts the Stecks have with blacks is with a couple of black babysitters, who they view not only as employees but also as friends.

Through these babysitters, the Stecks sometimes have a window into black views.

While the Stecks were vacationing in Maine a couple of years ago, one of the babysitters flew up to join them and help with the children. Later, the babysitter commented to him that she was the only black person in the airport. It never occurred to Bob.

"The fact that she and I looked in the same airport and saw such very different things has to do with race," Bob said. "She would have known my view of the world, the way I experience the world, better than I would have known the way she experienced it."

This supports Bob's belief that blacks assume they will "always be just somewhat invisible" to whites, "that there are parts and aspects and depths and resonances to their lives that I could never understand or would never want to understand."

"I think the frustration and the anger come in because it is a self-fulfilling hypothesis," he said. "Do I think that it is true? Oh, I think there is a lot of the black experience that I don't now understand. I mean, I did not notice that {the babysitter} was the only black person in that airport. No question about that. We see the world differently . . . . And I think blacks know that they see the world differently and basically think that it's not worth trying any more, in a sense. That's my perception."

This makes him "a little bit angry, like can't we get all of this {mess} out of the way?" And then "the depressing feeling" that race cannot be ignored.