The polls show a sizable minority of African Americans opposing a Persian Gulf war that whites overwhelmingly support. This tells us little about the nature or causes of the war. But it says a lot about the troubled state of race relations in America today.

Racial disharmony in America is not just a domestic matter. In the past quarter-century, America has lost a position of world leadership on race relations gained in the civil-rights revolution of the 1960s. Leaders on both sides of America's color divide have squandered the precious legacy of the brief moment when Selma meant as much as Detroit or Hollywood to America's place in the world.

Race relations in America have again become a zero-sum game. For decades whites resisted giving rights to blacks because they were black. Any black gain was a white loss. Not surprisingly, blacks have come to take the same attitude toward whites, and it shows up in this war. The separate cases of David Dinkins and Colin Powell illustrate what I mean.

A headline in The New York Times earlier this month, "Dinkins Trip to Israel Upsets Blacks," shows the zero-sum race philosophy at work. The Times recounted that "black leaders" had accused New York's black mayor of using a trip to Israel "to bolster his popularity among Jewish voters while neglecting the problems of his black constituents." That is, they were accusing Dinkins of being a politician -- of trying to enlarge his constituency across the color line.

Other black critics said "the trip could make Mr. Dinkins appear too hawkish," The Times noted -- at a time when blacks comprise about a quarter of U.S. combat units in Operation Desert Storm. Such critics argue that this is "a white man's war" that blacks should not support. Some opponents cast the conflict as a neo-colonial, racially motivated crusade. Others play up Israel as a factor.

There are several large holes in these arguments. But the polls of African Americans that The Washington Post and other news organizations have published suggest that they have an impact. The political use being made of the polls perpetuates a kind of racial stereotyping that should have ended in the days of Selma. We do not have polls telling us what Italian Americans think of the Persian Gulf war, nor do we know what African Americans think of the European Community's 1992 project. Technically feasible, such polls are not considered politically relevant by those who pay for them. Nor has much emphasis been placed on the outrage many African-American Moslems feel over the treatment Saddam Hussein has inflicted on the Moslems of Kuwait.

Instead, the media and the pollsters treat African-American attitudes on the war as a racial issue. Jesse Jackson and others respond to this pigeonholing by making the role of blacks in the armed services and President Bush's insensitivity on civil rights an argument for not using the force necessary to dislodge Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

The war is being portrayed as a new cause for racial division at home even though the senior military official in this war is Gen. Colin Powell, the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell probably exercises more raw power than any African American ever has; but because he operates across white and black cultures, his ascent is not hailed by many black organizations as a major success in the struggle for racial equality.

Powell is a black who is a leader; but Powell is not a black leader. He does not approach whites as a spokesman for black interests. Powell asks both whites and blacks to die for their country. In the ultimate zero-sum, he sees no room for racial criteria.

Two developments in Africa illustrate why I think it is wrong to view the Gulf war through a racial optic. One is the remarkable silence with which most African governments have greeted one month of devastating American air raids on a Third World nation. The other is the determined effort by F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela at this same moment to reach beyond their own communities and to construct racial reconciliation in South Africa.

Sub-Saharan African governments are treating the Gulf war as a foreign policy issue, not a racial one that unites people of color. They support the principle the United States and its coalition partners are fighting to uphold -- the frontiers of a United Nations member state cannot be simply erased by the aggression of a stronger, more brutal neighbor.

That is the fundamental principle on which the Organization of African Unity was founded. Frontiers in Africa are more recent and more profound products of colonial map-making than those of Kuwait.

In South Africa, Mandela and de Klerk both are abandoning the sectarian positions of the past. They demand that their constituents make sacrifices and not let injuries of the past block a better future. They are practicing the kind of leadership that changes race relations positively. It is the kind of leadership that has been absent from American political life for too long and will be needed to heal the wounds at home when this war is over.