WASHINGTON. — Jesse Jackson tells me he is not tickled with all the credit Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton has received for attracting more black votes than any other presidential candidate this year, in spite of Mr. Clinton's handicap of white skin.
Mr. Jackson makes a significant point. Mr. Clinton received an awesome amount of votes in Illinois, Michigan and the Southern state primaries and did almost as well with Hispanics (two-thirds of the Texas Latino vote, according to a Los Angeles Times poll), but his total numbers fell considerably short of what Mr. Jackson showed four years earlier, mainly because black turnout is lower. It doesn't help to have the support of people who don't feel enthusiastic enough to go vote.
And total white turnout was even worse in a year in which all the candidates are carrying considerable negative baggage, especially among Southern Democrats. In Georgia, for example, Republican ballots (in a race fired up by the George Bush-Patrick Buchanan feud) outnumbered Democratic ballots, of which about a third were cast by blacks, for the first time since Gen. William T. Sherman marched through Atlanta.
So Mr. Jackson has good reason to feel miffed, since he usually is portrayed in the media and in commentaries as a big negative, a lightning rod of racial confrontation and a drag on the Democratic Party's future.
Mr. Jackson likes to point out that he gets a huge black turnout, that a vote is a vote no matter what color the hand that casts it, and that the Democrats will lose on the national and the local levels if they fail to attract the voters Mr. Jackson brings out.
He has a point, but I still think Mr. Clinton's achievements as a white candidate who reaches out to blacks are worth our notice and close examination, not so much because of the big percentages of black votes he gets but rather because he has shattered several prominent myths that have created a bigger drag on the Democrats than Mr. Jackson ever could.
Mr. Clinton's success offers an important direction for the almost rudderless Democrats, a valuable example for those Republicans who think race can only be a ''wedge,'' not a unifier, and a hope for a nation trying to outlive its racist past to live a more tolerant and productive future.
Myth No. 1: America is too racially divided for blacks to show much enthusiasm for a white candidate.
Democrats may hold a majority in the Congress, but they never will be able to stem the tide of ''white flight'' in presidential races as long as they have ''too many blacks.''
In fact, Mr. Clinton probably has shown greater appeal across racial and class lines than any other presidential candidate since Robert F. Kennedy. None since Kennedy has shown as great an appeal to blue-collar whites and blacks in all brackets, and his outreach to college-educated whites, the heart of Paul Tsongas' base, in the Illinois and Michigan primaries helped force Mr. Tsongas to drop out of the race two days later.
It may be asking too much to expect Mr. Clinton to win a majority of whites (no other Democratic presidential candidate since Harry Truman has, except for Lyndon B. Johnson) in the general election if he wins the nomination, but at least he appears to have staunched the hemorrhaging.
In fact, Mr. Clinton's success across racial lines offers hope that we we might yet live to see an accompanying myth collapse, that America is too racially divided for white voters to show much enthusiasm for a black candidate. That will be a breakthrough.
Myth No. 2: On ''wedge'' issues like crime and welfare, black voters will only support a position too liberal for middle-class white ''swing'' voters to support.
Mr. Clinton appears to have crossed the wedge. To his credit, he preaches the same message on social issues to blacks and whites and gets cheers from both. ''We will help you, but we want you to change,'' is his message to welfare recipients, and it appeals to the best impulses of most Americans: that taxpayers should help the truly needy, but only if the needy are willing to help themselves.
Black voters obviously have responded in votes and major endorsements from such political heavyweights as Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke because, instead of pandering with giveaway programs, Mr. Clinton gives black voters the credit we deserve for appreciating the same basic values as whites: hard work, strong families, economic independence and faith in the future.
Also, as a product of the Old South, Mr. Clinton preaches knowledgeably of the ways race has been used to distract people of different races from working together in their best mutual interests.
Instead, he preaches color-blind issues like job security, health care, declining real incomes and pessimism about the future.