Having written back-to-back-to-back columns on Trent Lott, I received a bushel (or a peck) of e-mails from outraged readers accusing me of selective amnesia. When it came to racial outrages, why didn't I ever mention what certain Democrats had done? Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) was cited because he had once belonged to the Ku Klux Klan and more recently had publicly used the N-word. I kept waiting for someone to really drop the other shoe, but it never happened. So let me drop it myself: Al Gore.

Of course, Gore is no racist, and it is not even remotely possible that he ever used racially offensive speech. But for a long time he has been the personification of a Democratic Party that has found it impossible to move off the racial dime, often staying silent or complicitous when others waved the bloody shirt of ol' time racism -- usually just to propel African Americans to the polls.

This is precisely what happened in the last presidential campaign when the NAACP all but placed the body of James Byrd Jr., the victim of a racial murder, at George W. Bush's doorstep. Byrd's daughter, Renee Mullins, narrated the commercial and said, "So when Gov. George W. Bush refused to support hate-crimes legislation, it was like my father was killed all over again."

This tasteless ad, run just before the presidential election, was not denounced by a single prominent Democrat. It tried to link Byrd's gruesome murder to Bush's opposition to hate-crime legislation. That was pretty close to, if not indistinguishable from, calling him soft on racism.

Gore was the presidential candidate and had an absolute obligation to denounce the ad. (So did Bill Clinton.) He did not, because in its own way the Democratic Party is just as likely to play the race card as the Republican Party. Take a principled stand against this or that civil rights program and you're going to be denounced as a racist.

Hate-crime legislation is an example. Why it is needed is beyond me. Byrd's killers were hardly going to be daunted by such legislation, as what they did -- murder -- was already a capital crime. (Two of the three killers have been sentenced to death and the third to life in prison.) The town of Jasper, Tex., where the murder occurred, hung its head in shame. Yet, the entire ugly incident -- an aberration, really -- was treated as if the era of lynchings was not over and something had to be done quickly. To think otherwise was somehow racist.

It's the same with affirmative action. Say you oppose it -- believing it is a worthy end but achieved by dubious means -- and you stand a fair chance of being accused of racism. Gore himself came pretty close to that when, in a 1998 speech, he likened opposition to affirmative action to a duck blind. "They hide behind the phrase ['a colorblind society'] and just hope that we, like the ducks, won't be able to see through it."

Yes, that is sometimes the case. But opponents of affirmative action include quite a few blacks, who cannot be reasonably accused of racism. No matter. The prospect of having to defend yourself against what amounts to the most powerful charge in American politics is enough to make anyone just shut his mouth and, if he is in Congress, vote the way of political correctness.

This race-based politics is not as odious as, say, Lott's. (This country's racist past must never be ignored.) But it, too, harks back to the past -- a past when the entire question of race was infused with moral certainty. Jim Crow was wrong and that was all there was to it.

The moral clarity the Democratic Party feels on race is rooted in nostalgia. This is why the Lott affair was so bracing. The former Senate majority leader was like "Otzi," the 5,300-year-old iceman recovered in 1991 from a receding glacier in the Italian Alps. Here was the past surfacing in the present -- and Democrats watched with glee as Republicans moved quickly to sweep Lott and the era he represented into history's proverbial dustbin.

Now, though, the Democrats must deal with the present. And that means dealing with complex issues, such as affirmative action and hate-crime legislation, that to many Americans seem far removed from lynchings or segregated drinking fountains. Yet too many Democrats -- and Gore has been one of them -- are quick to draw a line and ask: Which side are you on? It makes others ask a different question in response: What era are you living in?