While many in Washington are fixed on the tottering white empire of South Africa, the growing popularity of the white supremacist movement in our country looms as a dangerous political omen for the 1990s and beyond.

David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan camouflaged as a Republican state legislator in Louisiana, is attracting a passionate following in his bid for the U.S. Senate as he stumps through the state attacking affirmative action, welfare and set-asides for minorities.

"I'm not a racist like Jesse Jackson," he told one audience. "I'm proud of my heritage like Jesse Jackson is proud of his. But I believe the time has come for equal rights for everyone in this country, even for white people."

Gov. Buddy Roemer, a Democrat, told the New York Times that the cheering audiences for Duke in his state are not atypical. "Wherever I go, I find almost universal dislike for set-asides. I don't share that. But you can't come down here and say that Louisiana has a problem that's different than anyone else's. We have a mouth that's different, but not a problem."

The accuracy of the governor's remarks was borne out in a recent publication of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Noting that white supremacist groups are now turning to the pulpit, the media and politics, Jan Douglass and Leonard Zeskin, writing in Focus Magazine, said the rapidly growing movement embraces "hundreds of organizations, publications, churches and social groups."

"Some elements consist of a single person with a post office box and a newsletter. Others, like the Liberty Lobby, are multi-million dollar enterprises with well-developed infrastructures. While it is fragmented, the movement is held together by a belief in the innate superiority of 'single white' people and a desire to re-engineer society to ensure their absolute control," they wrote.

David Duke's Senate campaign is an indication of that movement's adoption of mainstream political methods to achieve the goal of a national white supremacy movement.

Despite the belief by some white blue-collar workers that they are hurting while blacks are being helped, Time magazine recently noted that "affirmative action has broadened to include other groups and to benefit white women perhaps most of all."

The villain for blue-collar workers is the state of the overall economy, not affirmative action. The real earnings of all Americans, white and black, have been stagnant since 1973, and that problem was exacerbated by Reagan-era policies that favored the rich and created big income gaps between rich and poor, rich and middle class.

Moreover, as the U.S. industrial economy has lost its competitiveness, hundreds of thousands of black Americans and millions of white Americans have lost out, failing to obtain the employment they might have expected decades earlier. Undergoing economic strain, depressed Louisianians and others look for someone to blame for their falling fortunes.

"They feel they are being left out while blacks are being given privileges we don't deserve," says Faustin Jones-Wilson, of Howard University. "It's the old-fashioned Archie Bunker mentality. It's a misperception that we are getting more than we are actually getting. They are against the concept of someone getting preferential treatment, because it leaves them out; it's an us versus them mentality . . . a scapegoating."

But if affirmative action were abandoned today, it would not make a lot of difference in the lives of white blue-collar workers or their black counterparts.

Once more a fascist arm has reached out and touched a responsive chord in people with misinformation and emotionalism. David Duke appeals to people's fears and anxieties in order to further his own horrendous goals. In the process, he perpetuates old attitudes of black inferiority. That his greatest appeal is with younger voters is particularly abhorrent.

The rise of this supremacist movement -- with its false premise that whites are being hurt while blacks are being assisted -- calls for the most urgent attention at the national, state and local levels. For if the politics of this decade can turn on such fears and distortions, the question that must be asked is: How will this democracy survive into the next century?