THE EPISODE of Bill Clinton and Sister Souljah may seem a passing curiosity in a long campaign. But it is in fact something more: a metaphor for the difficulty of politics in a divided country.
Sister Souljah, a young rap singer who mixes social commentary with her songs, was interviewed last month by David Mills of the Washington Post. On the subject of the Los Angeles riots, Mr. Mills asked: "Even the people themselves who were perpetrating that violence, did they think it was wise? Was that wise, reasoned action?" She replied:
"Yeah, it was wise. I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? . . . White people, this government and that mayor were well aware of the fact that black people were dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you're a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person?"
Last weekend Sister Souljah was an invited panelist at a meeting of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. Governor Clinton spoke to the group the next day, and he criticized her. He quoted part of the Post interview and a statement she had made on a music video: "If there are any good white people, I haven't met them."
"Her comments before and after Los Angeles," Mr. Clinton said, "were filled with a kind of hatred that you (the Rainbow Coalition) do not honor."
The criticism infuriated Mr. Jackson. He said afterward that Sister Souljah "represents the feelings and hopes of a whole generation of people," and that she said she had been misquoted in the Post. In fact the interview was tape-recorded.
A number of leading Democrats, white and black, praised Mr. Clinton for speaking as he did. Others thought it was good for Mr. Clinton, and important, to show that he was prepared to disagree with Jesse Jackson.
My reaction was that Mr. Clinton had done the right thing. I know that black Americans have every reason for bitterness. But it cannot help their cause, or help the country, for those who have influence to use the language of hate and murder.
Then I spoke with Roger Wilkins, a friend who is one of the most respected voices of the black community. He was deeply distressed by what Governor Clinton had done.
"I do not defend Sister Souljah's comments," he said. "It is wrong for anyone to justify violence. But Clinton didn't know what had gone on at that Rainbow meeting. And he didn't ask Jesse Jackson, didn't give him any warning of what he was going to do.
"At the panel the night before, Jackson stood up to Sister Souljah, insisting that you can and must work within the system. And she finally agreed with him. He didn't invite her there to do her dirty rap.
"In that context Clinton's speech was arrogant, and it was cheap. He came there to show suburban whites that he can stand up to blacks. It was contrived."
For Mr. Wilkins and other black intellectuals, Bill Clinton would surely be an enormous improvement on George Bush as president. He would not appoint right-wing ideologues to the Supreme Court. He would not oppose modest civil rights bills with scary talk of "quotas." He would not drain funds from America's cities and then send Dan Quayle out to mock their poverty.
But Mr. Wilkins' words showed me again how much perceptions matter on the issue of race. History, our terrible racial history, makes blacks understandably sensitive to the feeling that they are being used by politicians.
Mr. Clinton has been a strong, even emotional advocate of racial justice through all his political life. He has the greatest potential for healing the country's racial divisions of any candidate since Robert Kennedy. But it is hard for anyone to make blacks and whites feel he is speaking to both from the heart, as Bobby Kennedy did. That is still a test for Bill Clinton.
Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.