Whether by design or coincidence, D.C. council member David A. Clarke, who is white, may effectively have removed race as an issue in his bid to gain the post of council chairman in this city, which is 70 percent black. The motives don't matter. The result is the same.

Consider the scenario:

Clarke, a two-term liberal Democrat from Ward 1, calls a press conference to announce that he will not run for chairman, due in part to "growing racial distrust" in Washington.

That sends a signal that a decent, liberal white who already represents a predominantly black and Spanish-speaking ward wants to make a citywide run but is obstructed by a seemingly emotional factor--race. Time passes.

Some blacks become defensive. They insist that the campaign won't be racial, that blacks are sophisticated and vote for the best candidate, vote on the issues.

Then, Clarke says, he gets calls from unnamed District residents who "chastise" him for bowing to racial tensions. There is an outcry from white liberals that Clarke is, in effect, the victim of reverse discrimination, whatever that is, and should definitely run for head of the council.

So Clarke calls another press conference and announces that the weight of public pressure has caused him to change his mind and he will now jump into the contest.

Enter incumbent chairman Arrington Dixon, who already has launched his campaign for reelection. Dixon walks right into the trap.

"I would be concerned about any suggestion . . . that there is any polarization in the city. I have lived here all my life. I have never encountered it. I think competent people will be elected."

Such a statement from Dixon, who is black, is about as realistic as Ronald Reagan saying that, at the time he was a boy, the country didn't know it had a race problem.

The reality is that now both contenders have declared race unimportant, and it would be difficult and politically costly for either to backtrack. That's good for making sure that the contest is open to all qualified candidates. But it's bad for those who want a realistic and candid discussion of all the problems facing the city.

Race is a political issue, period. It is an economic issue, a social issue. One of the healthiest aspects of politics here is that it recognizes ethnic diversity and political self-interest. If there can be a women's vote, a Jewish vote, a white vote or an Irish vote--all based on the common good of the group--why should blacks have to apologize for or deny a black vote? In the last two decades, politics in America has expanded to permit many who used to be excluded--women, gays, blacks and others--to participate as organized and self-conscious blocs, in the same way others have done in the past.

Among blacks, the credibility of a liberal or progressive white stems from the perception that he or she takes a stand on key issues that is acceptable to blacks. But many blacks, if they had the choice between an equally qualified and electable black and white, would choose the black, just as many women would choose a woman in a similar choice between a man and woman.

Clarke's motives in getting back into the chairman's contest may have been straightforward. Yet he was also correct in noting that there is polarization in Washington, polarization between rich and poor, black and white.

Unfortunately, the policies of the Reagan administration, which take from the poor and give to the rich and which are encouraging resegregation in America, are deepening those chasms with ax-like precision. The poor feel the rich have bought into Reaganism. When they see their hard-won gains slipping away, blacks worry that many whites have bought into Reagan ideology, too. So they withdraw and circle the wagons around special issues they care deeply about. It is unfortunate, but under the circumstances, inevitable.

No one is saying that race should be the centerpiece of the campaign for the head of the city's legislature. There are too many other important issues. But race and racial relations are also real issues that should be aired. The political maneuvering of the past two weeks, however, raises the possibility that a real, substantive and perhaps even critical factor could unwisely be declared irrelevant before the campaign starts.