RICHMOND — Richmond -- FOR 12 years, Democrats -- often led by Bill Clinton -- rightly condemned the code-word racial politics of the Reagan era.
But last week it was President Clinton who used code-word politics to try to help Mayor David N. Dinkins, declaring at a fund-raiser in New York that "too many of us are still too unwilling to vote for people who are different than we are."
And did Democrats rush to condemn him?
Far from it. Some admired the president's skillful manipulation of the race card to rally African-American racial pride and white Democratic (actually white Democratic Jewish) guilt over racial prejudice.
Such transparent political expediency raises a basic question: Do Democrats now believe the end justifies the means?
If the answer is yes, then clearly we Democrats have failed to learn from Martin Luther King Jr. and from all the others whose struggles have given us the freedoms we enjoy today.
Despite the sometimes agonizingly slow progress toward racial equality, King believed in one hard and fast rule: Two wrongs never make a right.
What the president did in the name of helping Mr. Dinkins was simply wrong. It undermined the moral authority of his office and of the next mayor of New York, whoever that may be, and it set back the cause of equality in ways the president appears not to appreciate.
The moment we legitimize the use of prejudice as a political force, we play into the hands of those who would use hatred, intolerance and bigotry to divide and inflame. We set a precedent that invariably boomerangs on those who suffer most from discrimination -- those children denied the chance to develop their talents because society has lost the will to combat bigotry.
King understood this, and the strength of his conviction redeemed Jefferson's promise in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal.
Sadly, Mr. Clinton seems to believe that he can lead the same march with the opposite music, that he can ring in a new age of equality by beating the old drums of racial discord. Even if he gets his wish, he will leave the country -- not just New York City -- a loser.
Down here in the capital of the Confederacy, this is a racial drama we understand.
For years, racial appeals kept Southern politicians in power. But the price was fearful; millions of people, black and white, were trapped in a cycle of poor wages, poor education and little personal freedom.
By stifling an honest discussion of the real issues, the polarized racial climate made it impossible to resolve them. The South's political institutions lost legitimacy and were unable to develop the broad-based consensus needed for anything but resistance to progress.
In 1985, an African-American named Douglas Wilder challenged the color line when he first ran for lieutenant governor.
Our campaign rejected any appeals to racial voting. We publicly refused the support of a black Republican who had bolted his party for us on account of race. We would never have allowed Bill Clinton to come to Virginia and make his New York City-style appeal.
Experts told us our refusal to make such overt appeals would cost us the election. But we believed that King and John F. Kennedy, the nation's first Roman Catholic president, were right; we didn't want people to vote for or against us on account of race.
Despite all the predictions, we won.
And in 1989, Mr. Wilder was elected governor with a greater percentage of the white vote -- in one of the nation's most conservative states -- than Mr. Dinkins received in a city that prides itself on being liberal.
Perhaps Mr. Clinton is right and every African-American candidate should accuse those who vote against him of being partly motivated by racial feelings.
Yet the president surely knows that such politics can only damage the country -- not to mention the fight for equality.
If there is one thing he ought to have learned as a Southern politician, it is this: Playing the race card has never brought people closer together, and it never will.
Paul Goldman, who was the chief campaign strategist for Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, is a political consultant.