After the California gubernatorial election in which George Deukmejian beat Thomas Bradley, I wrote a column saying it was incredible in this day and age (I am addicted to cliches) that some people admitted voting against Bradley strictly because he is black.

I then trotted out some more cliches, calling those people racists or something worse and rode off on my high horse to write yet another column. Then came the mail.

The mail often is not kind, but seldom is it thought-provoking. This time it was both. There were the usual denunciation of me by the usual raving lunatics, but there were some letters that posed a difficult question: Why is it racist for whites to vote against a black but not racist when blacks vote for a black?

It is a good question and, more to the point, timely to boot. It has been raised repeatedly in Chicago where the Democratic mayoralty primary was won by Rep. Harold Washington, a black. Washington fashioned his victory by getting 80 percent of the black vote while his two opponents split the white vote. Now Washington faces a general election contest against--to risk a redundancy--a white Republican, Bernard Epton by name. A vote for Epton by people who would otherwise never vote Republican is, we are told, racist.

Well, maybe not. There is, after all, the little matter of Washington's record to consider, specifically his jail record.

The man has, as we used to say, done time in stir. It was only a month, 'tis true, but it was a well-earned month since he was convicted of not filing tax returns for four years, although the actual figure may be 19 years--possibly an indoor record. If that was not enough, the Illinois Supreme Court barred Washington from practicing law for 5 1/2 years after finding that he had converted clients' funds to his own use.

Unfortunately, there is ample reason to believe that all this is beside the point. If Washington were a Polish American and if he had won the Democratic primary with 100 percent of the Polish vote, not only would everyone have considered it natural, but he would be a cinch to win the general election. The reason there is now a contest is not Washington's record--ethical, penal or otherwise--and not because he threatens the patronage of the machine, but because he is black--or haven't you noticed.

Now back to the main question: If it is wrong to reject someone for racial reasons, why is it not also wrong to support someone for the same reason? Answer: Because the two are not the same.

It is one thing to support someone out of a sense of identification, either with his struggle or, because race is often synonymous with social class, with his outlook. It is quite another thing, though, to reject someone for reasons that are specious, based on prejudice or, at best, on a stereotype.

This applies to those California voters who said they had voted against Bradley because he is black. Their choice had nothing to do with either Bradley's or Deukmejians's programs. In fact, their choice had nothing to do with Deukmejian at all. They would have voted against Bradley no matter who his opponent had been unless, of course, it had been another black. In that event, they probably would have moved to Utah.

As for the blacks who voted for Bradley, sure, some of them chose him soley on the basis of race, but they were not rejecting Deukmejian on the basis of his.

Racial affinity is not the same as racial hostility, and while it may not be a good reason to vote for somebody--not to mention the best reason--it is a long way from being racist.

So this is not a variation of the bottle that is either half full or half empty--a bit of sophistry that is supposed to show that racism is a matter of perspective or that blacks can be racists, too. They can be, of course, and they would be if in Chicago they rejected Epton because he is white. But when it comes to rejecting on account of race, it is whites who are doing that. The distinction, in the end, is nothing more than the difference between pride and hate. At the moment in Chicago, it is all the difference in the world.