WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Imagine you are sitting at home watching television. Suddenly the image of a young neo-Nazi skinhead fills your screen. He delivers a Hitler-style salute while an announcer delivers this startling message:
''If they were giving medals for killing black people, this guy would win a bronze.''
The picture changes to a hooded Ku Klux Klansman: ''This guy, the silver.''
The picture changes again. This time it is a tough-looking black youth, dressed the way you might presume a street-gang member would dress. Gunfire echoes in the background.
''But this guy would win the gold,'' the announcer concludes. ''If you're in a gang, you're not a brother. You're a traitor.''
As the commercial ends, you hear the sound of a prison door slamming shut.
Chilling. Is this the sort of ad you would welcome on your television screen? Count me as one black father who would -- gladly. But whether you will see it or not may be determined by how a controversy swirling up around the ad plays itself out.
The ad originates in Evanston, Illinois, a racially-integrated-and-proud-of-it suburb of Chicago, which has had the serenity of its less-fortunate neighborhoods interrupted occasionally by gangs shooting each other.
Hoping to ''de-glamorize'' gang life, a local school teacher suggested a TV ad to Evanston's Human Relations Commission during a ''Seeking Solutions'' community forum. Chicagoan Tom Reilly, a vice president at the Leo Burnett advertising agency, read about the idea, thought it was right up his alley and volunteered to help.
When Mr. Reilly's team's creation was screened before Evanston test audiences, the response was overwhelmingly favorable. One teen-age African-American boy who had been toying with )) gang life burst into tears, according to a leader of the local chapter of Mothers Against Gangs.
But the response wasn't totally favorable. The spot's noisiest critic was Alderman Rochelle Washington, one of four black members of Evanston's 18-member City Council. When it was screened by the city's Human Services Committee, she stormed out of the meeting room and slammed the door for extra emphasis.
In a telephone interview later, she told me she was deeply offended by the ad's simplistic equating of skinheads and Klansmen who killed blacks because of hate with ''our kids'' who fall into crime because of family and social system's failures.
''I think our kids brood and let things pile up inside themselves, instead of letting them out,'' she said. ''This ad isn't saying, 'Come in and let me help you.' It is pushing them farther away. I don't want an ad that says, 'We hate you.' I want an ad to shake 'em up, but I don't want this one. I'll go to my grave fighting this one.''
Besides, Ms. Washington added, gangs are not just a black problem, although the ad, in her view, makes it sound like it is. ''My mother once said, 'Don't give anybody a stick to whip you with,' '' she said. ''I think with this ad we are, in essence, giving the Klan a stick to whip us with.''
Maybe so. But if they're whipping us, we're killing us. The ad's message is not significantly different from the housecleaning message countless black leaders have delivered in the past. Jesse Jackson, for example, has often remarked that, ''We've lost more people to dope than we ever did to the rope.'' But we African-Americans often are reluctant to speak with such candor in front of other Americans, even when truth is what we need to set us free.
It offends me, too, to think of skinheads and Klansmen as the moral equivalent of black street gangs, but it offends me more that it happens to be the truth.
Society obviously has failed many of our young people, but that doesn't mean we should fail them again by delivering anything less than a clear, direct, no-nonsense message: Gangs are the enemy of a community. If you're thinking about joining, don't. If you're in one, quit.
''Our target is teens who are thinking of joining gangs,'' Owen Thomas, the commission's executive director and an African-American, explained. ''It is to change their perception that gangs are cool or hip.''
Fair enough. It is certainly true that gangs are not a problem for blacks alone. Just about every American ethnic group has been plagued by them at one time or another. But I can't remember anyone since the days of ''West Side Story'' who has glamorized gang life as much as today's ''gangsta rappers'' like Ice-T, Ice Cube and various other Ices do.
Time to hear the reality behind the raps: Klansmen have murdered at least 20 African-Americans since 1960, according to Klanwatch. Street gangs murdered at least 1,300 blacks last year alone, according to the FBI. We don't need to worry about the Klan or neo-Nazis nearly as much as we need to worry about ''brothers'' and ''sisters'' who do their job for them.
It is not my intention to absolve society for its failures. At best, an ad like this one can be an effective device to grab the attention of media-addicted youths of all races, but it must be accompanied by other local efforts to engage young would-be gangsters in constructive alternatives.
After all, society is all of us. If our communities fail to pull ourselves together across racial lines and provide the social support that can compete with gang life, we have failed again.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.