Racism is impolite in America today. Which is why it so often comes wrapped in hypocrisy.

For the latest example, look at Louisiana's Gov. Mike Foster. By most reports a decent man, Foster grew up wealthy -- an inconvenience, given his insistence on presenting himself as a good ol' boy. Back in 1995, Foster decided he'd like to be governor. But as the campaign began, he found himself bringing up the rear in a three-way battle for the conservative vote -- behind even the infamous David Duke.

Duke is something of a national media darling, thanks to the uncommon forthrightness of his bigotry -- no beating around the bush for this former Klansman and Nazi sympathizer. But he has by and large failed on the ballots in Louisiana, where he runs perennially for major office. He has managed to win only once -- a state legislative seat a decade ago.

One thing all those races (political races, that is) gave Duke, however, is the best list of Louisiana white supremacists anyone could want. And in '95, Mike Foster apparently wanted it quite a lot: He paid Duke $150,000 for the list, out of his own billfold.

People who deal regularly with voters' list sales say the market rate per name is about 10 cents -- which would have put the price of Duke's list at more like $9,000.

Why Foster paid so much, why he paid personally and why he went to such lengths to make it a secret transaction -- all this is now the subject of a federal grand jury investigation.

Meanwhile, the press and politicos in Louisiana are mulling over whether the payment was a way to keep Duke out of the governor's race (Duke did end up not running), or a way for Foster to gain Duke's endorsement (Duke did endorse him).

But one of the most interesting aspects of all this is how Foster reacted when the deal became public. He hedged. He said he didn't use the list. He said he didn't report it because he didn't use it. He charged that the investigation is just an effort to undermine him as he seeks reelection.

And when asked to renounce the candidly odious Duke, Foster would have none of that unpleasantness: "I'm sick of that. You renounce him if you want. That's a silly question. I am not interested in that question."

Foster appears to believe this to be the gentlemanly, fair-minded way to respond to a request to renounce: What is renunciation after all but finger-pointing and naysaying?

That sounds respectable. But Foster paid David Duke $150,000. Presumably he wanted the list of white sympathizers. Or he wanted Duke out of the race and Duke's supporters on his side. Either way, he was courting white supremacists and funneling a lot of money into Duke's proud campaign against blacks, Jews, gays -- against just about anyone who happens to be anything other than a good, old-fashioned white American.

This "I don't renounce" response is familiar. It's the stance taken by Mississippi's Sen. Trent Lott and Georgia's Rep. Bob Barr when news emerged about their links to the Council of Conservative Citizens, proud descendant of the old White Citizens Council -- the white-collar Klan. Barr delivered a 1998 keynote speech to the group; Lott too had appeared before them, more than once.

Yet when news of these engagements broke, Lott and Barr maintained they had no idea the council had such terrible racist notions. Certainly they didn't agree with those views, no sir. Just as Foster said the other day that he parts company with Duke "on racial stuff."

But denounce them? No. Foster wanted nothing to do with that, just as efforts in Congress to denounce the Council of Conservative Citizens a couple of months back fell flat.

Distaste for renouncing rings familiar to most of us: Who wants a scold standing around wagging the finger of blame?

Sometimes, however, a little renouncing is the only way to bring clarity to the murk. Foster, like Barr and Lott, has tried to have it both ways: Consort with the hatemongers -- bankroll or speak to them, slap them on the back, take their phone calls, appear in their newsletters. Then swear you have nothing but purity in your own heart.

But once you've courted bigotry, a clean separation from it is in order. Nothing short of that will keep Foster -- or Lott or Barr -- from looking like a racist cloaking himself in hypocrisy.

Duke, at least, is honest about it.

A correction: In my last column [May 28], which was on sport-utility vehicles, I used some figures from the interest group Ozone Action that incorrectly stated carbon dioxide emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency says that an average passenger car emits, annually, five tons of CO 2 , and an average SUV 8.4 tons. These figures are but a tenth of the ones in the column. Even so, they confirm the remarkable pollution output of cars -- and the far greater one of SUVs.