Until a couple of decades or so ago, about the only people for whom blacks could vote were the fairest of the white candidates who ran for offices across the United States. With few exceptions, black candidates were not even in the picture.

Indeed, in 1969, a few years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made his "I Have A Dream" speech envisioning a country where individuals would be judged on the content of their character instead of the color of their skin, only about 48 blacks were mayors of U.S. towns and cities.

Now, thanks to one of the most dramatic social revolutions in recent world history, more than 300 blacks head U.S. cities, and in many of them, whites, not blacks, are the majority population.

Despite the long list of unfinished tasks that remain for African Americans to gain economic opportunity and full social and political participation, I would like to think that in a number of places, a better part of the American spirit is becoming a reality.

Those thoughts came to mind as I reflected on the current debate about whether a white person "could or should" be elected to one of this city's top positions of leadership in the coming election. The issue came to a head over whether D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke, the only white among the Democratic mayoral candidates, failed to win an endorsement by a Teamsters Union local in part because of the perception that a white candidate would have difficulty winning the Sept. 11 primary.

Polar opposite views have emerged among blacks. Roger Wilkins, a civil-rights activist and George Mason University professor, said, African Americans "are the proponents of the ideal of equal opportunity based on character and ability, and should be the first people to reject the notion that you vote based solely on race . . . . That's not what we're about."

George X Cure, candidate for D.C. delegate, expressed the view that a black could better represent the city.

I found myself understanding the position of one man, but accepting the view of the other, for clearly this is an issue of heart and mind.

Emotionally, I understand those who say they would like to see a strong black leader in Washington, particularly in light of drug-related violence and homicides involving young black men, and the terrible fall of Marion Barry.

But as a people who have suffered for 400 years in the race game, we simply cannot recommend it. Wilkins is right; we must vote for the best person for mayor and delegate on the basis of personal qualities and character, not solely on race.

To do anything less may unconsciously promote the fallacious view that if the election is based on principle, character and ability, a white will win. I happen to think that if the election is based on those factors, black candidates will have stunningly good chances of taking the top leadership posts.

When the problems and progress of black Americans were examined in "Common Destiny," a recent landmark study, the point was stressed that the fate of blacks is linked to that of other Americans, and even the world.

During a long, painful history of racial conflict and exploitation, black Americans have shown a penchant for fairness, forgiveness and loyalty to the highest ideals of America.

If we believe this, we cannot overlook the emerging fairness of the last couple of decades, and the fact that some whites are showing an openness similar to that which blacks have always shown. The election of David N. Dinkins as mayor of New York City and L. Douglas Wilder as governor of Virginia are but recent examples. One would hope for further signs of this fairness in North Carolina, where Harvey Gantt faces Sen. Jesse Helms in a bid to become the first black elected senator from that state in this century.

In the cases where the least fairness exists, the culprits usually are fear, ignorance, miscommunication and lack of understanding. Certainly all these factors, and more, are present in this city's current racial divisiveness.

But the District is unique in many ways. Within its black majority is a large, highly educated population as well as a large poverty population. It is home to liberal whites as well as conservative ones.

If people all over the city vote on fairness, principle, ability and character, on who they believe will do what is best for the people who most need it here -- not solely on race -- then the best persons surely will win.