It was with a special kind of anguish that many blacks watched Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign get dogged with the "can't win" label.

It didn't seem to really matter that his issues-oriented campaign had attracted some of the largest and most enthusiastic black and white crowds or that his polls and positive-minus-negative network news coverage led all candidates during the months preceding the first primary. The smart money said that whites in 1988 would be reluctant to vote for any black for president of the United States, so a vote for Jesse Jackson was a wasted vote.

What brings all of this to mind is the story that is being played out around the mayoral candidacy of Council Chairman David A. Clarke. Two weeks ago, the parent council for the Washington area Teamsters Union Joint Council 55 announced its split endorsement of council member Charlene Drew Jarvis and Del. Walter E. Fauntroy for mayor. At the same time, senior Teamster officials were privately telling a Post reporter that Dave Clarke had the best pro-labor record, but no one on the parent council voted for him because he's white, and a white can't win the D.C. mayor's race this year.

What a biting commentary on the state of race relations in our nation's capital and on the courage of the Teamsters. There was a time in the history of organized labor when a politician with the best labor voting record and the union-bestowed moniker "a friend of labor" could be assured of receiving organized labor's backing on Election Day. Apparently, this time around the candidate's skin color is far more important than his record of support for working men and women in the Teamsters ranks.

This is both sad and disturbing, because the man who has been rejected on racial grounds has home-town and civil rights credentials that most young political aspirants in this city would love to own. Clarke was not only born in the District and educated in the city's public schools, he also was graduated from George Washington University with a degree in religion and holds a degree from Howard University's school of law. Before his election to the city council in 1975, Clarke directed the Washington Bureau of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, clerked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and was an active participant in the Poor People's campaign. But none of this really matters, because in the minds of Teamsters Union Joint Council 55, the District of Columbia isn't ready to elect a white mayor.

Now there are some very good reasons to support one of Clarke's opponents in the mayor's race; and his record on the city council offers much ammunition for those who wish to oppose his candidacy. So these remarks are not meant to be an endorsement of Dave Clarke. But to withhold support from Clarke simply because he is white is to join company with those racists and cowards in Virginia, New York City and Seattle who couldn't bring themselves to vote for Doug Wilder or David Dinkins or Norm Rice simply because they are black.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.