For Chicago's white voters, whether upper-crust liberal or lower-middle ethnic, it is a classic example of a Hobson's choice. Either one you pick, you lose. For the citizens of America, the dismal stakes are the same. There seems no way for real winners to emerge from Chicago this week. Racial polarization, ugly and menacing, has occurred and will not soon subside.

Among the ironies in this tragic situation is a fact so obvious that it appears to be overlooked.

In many ways, Chicago's mayoral election should be a celebration of the glories of American democracy. Here is our most archetypal city, full of all the emotions and tensions that inevitably exist in so diverse a society.

In Chicago, as in no other major city, predominant religious and ethnic blocs compete nakedly for political and economic power. And yet who emerge as the candidates offered up by the democracy? Two representatives of the minority groups that historically have suffered the most from discrimination. One is a Jew, the other a black. In this melting pot of American cities, never has there been a black or a Jewish mayor.

Instead of representing a triumph of tolerance and moderation, their candidacies have bitterly divided the city. And the fault is theirs. By accentuating prejudices and fears, by appeals to racial stereotypes, they have ensured that this election with so many national overtones will represent a sorry step back instead of a welcome one forward.

They have made it a referendum on race, one that guarantees there will be only losers this time.

The final days of Chicago campaigning have been taking place, by coincidence, with the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Just 15 years ago, as I write, King's coffin was placed inside its marble crypt on an Atlanta slope blossoming with spring flowers. Within minutes after the service ended, men, women and children began plucking those flowers and carrying them off, proud heirlooms to be preseved for posterity. The process of King's deification had begun even as the nation reeled from the shock of racial riots that spontaneously ignited across the nation. Scars from those riots are visible today in our urban centers. The invisible ones are there, too.

Looking back now, King stands fixed in the public mind as the civil rights leader who successfully led blacks from the last vestiges of bondage, political and economic, if not personal, in the South. I associate him, as one of the reporters who followed him closely throughout his public career, equally with failure in the urban North, especially Chicago.

His great victory in Selma, in the heart of the black belt of Alabama in the spring of 1965, resulted in passage of the Voting Rights Act. That gave blacks the political power they now exercise throughout the states of the old Confederacy. King then turned north, and went to Chicago. He failed, totally.

In ethnic white wards, he was jeered no less harshly, and predictably, than was black candidate Harold Washington when he provocatively attended Palm Sunday services in one of those same sections, with Walter F. Mondale at his side.

King failed to persuade whites and blacks that his message of Christian forbearance, of nonviolence, of turning the other cheek, of love and redemption, was applicable to them. They responded either indifferently or angrily. In the reality of the competition that was their lot in Chicago, they saw the races inevitably pitted against each other in deadly struggle for survival. They paid no heed to the preachings of a black Baptist minister come from out of the Deep South to save them.

I spent a memorable week with him then, traveling day and night, often alone except for a single aide, as he made his rounds of public and private appearances. His frustration and growing disillusionment were palpable. A year later, when I saw him again, long after his Chicago experiment had ended, he had aged visibly. I was struck by the tired look and even more diffident manner, far removed from the buoyant, energetic King I had seen in other days.

The irony now is that King did not fail in the larger sense. Putting his religious message aside, he had the correct--indeed, the only--approach possible in a society with so many volatile and contesting components. He counseled reconciliation, instead of division, reaching to the broadest range of groups instead of appealing to the narrowest ones. Although he practiced the politics of confrontation, he sought accommodation.

In the press for partisan advantage in Chicago, those lessons have been ignored. That does not have to be so, of course, but Chicago politicians, particularly these two sorry examples of the art of leadership, don't seem to know it.

This country has every reason for great pride in the racial progress achieved in the 15 years since King's death.

In North and South, black mayors, black sheriffs, black police chiefs, black voters are commonplace. We have not reached the millennium of racial harmony and understanding and probably never will, but the climate today is infinitely better.

Political contests in which black candidates oppose whites now occur so routinely that they seldom become objects of intense national attention. Philadelphia offers a current example. There, in a city that has certainly experienced its share of racial divisions and hatreds, a mayoral race in which a black candidate appears headed for victory over a white ethnic proceeds calmly. If he wins, it will not be because he is black, but because he is seen as the more able candidate.

In neither case can that be said of Chicago. The most American of cities, which with good reason boasts of providing a vibrant model for our future, finds itself trapped in a sad playback of our past. It doesn't help to say, as King would have, it need not be that way. It is.