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In a recent column, I argued that Colin Powell, as president, would spell disaster for the Republican revolution: As a self-declared Rockefeller Republican and a man of widespread popularity and moral stature, Powell would be able to halt the Republican assault on the New Deal-Great Society welfare state as no one else could.

Yet committed as I am to the success of the conservative revolution, I would seriously consider voting for Powell for president. I would do so without any illusions about what damage a Powell presidency would do to the Republican project of dismantling the welfare state, a project I believe essential to restoring the vigor of civil society and of government itself.What, for a person of my ideological ilk, could justify such a sacrifice? What issue could possibly trump the need for restructuring a ruinously dysfunctional national government?

Only one: Race.

In an ironic and tragic turn of the civil rights revolution, there is today a powerful movement within the black community away from Martin Luther King's vision of integration toward a new kind of separatism, self-imposed and adversarial. Its most extreme advocate is, of course, Louis Far-ra-khan, who portrays blacks as an occupied people in an alien land.

His message has a resonance not confined to the political extremes of the black community. Monday will see the realization of Farrakhan's pet project, his Million Man March on Washington. The fact that such mainstream icons of the black community as the Congressional Black Caucus, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Jesse Jackson have endorsed Farrakhan's march shows the extent to which he and his separatist vision have gained legitimacy among blacks.

Thirty-two years ago in Washington, King imprinted on America his vision of a land where "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers." Now, in the very same place, Far-rakhan's contradictory vision - his march excludes not just whites but black women, too - will symbolically declare its supersession of King's.

But it is more than symbolism. This event is, in fact, only a reflection of the real currents of black separatism coursing through the country, currents on easy view at the separate dorms and dining halls insisted upon by black college students on American campuses.

Against this tragic turn toward black separatism comes Colin Powell, a man who calls his autobiography not a personal journey, not an African-American journey, but "An American Journey"; whose self-identity is one of soldier, patriot and, above all, American; who, while declaring himself to be proudly American, at the same time declares himself not just incidentally black but proudly black.

This deliberate, self-possessed merging of two identities offers by deed and example an extremely powerful alternative to Far-rakhan-like separatism. His election to the office that uniquely defines American identity, his governing from the White House, his representing America to the world would necessarily have a dramatic effect on black self-consciousness.

The fact that Powell appeals to whites is often patronizingly explained away by saying that Powell is a black whom whites can feel comfortable with, a "safe" black. But it is not a question of comfort. It is a question of identity.

Powell's appeal to whites is not sentimental or guilty but, one might say, national. Americans, white and black, are in the grips of a crisis of identity. Yet, amid all our multicultural confusions, the one vision on whose value and beauty we can agree is King's. Most whites desperately wish to see the fulfillment of King's vision, which remains a powerfully unifying theme.

Powell proudly identifies with the integrationist vision. His very history personifies it. For such a man to win the presidency would have a transforming effect on Americans' view of racial possibilities. Among blacks it would present, by stunning counterexample, the single greatest challenge since King to the voices of separation and alienation.

That is why even conservatives like me would have to give a Powell candidacy serious consideration. We have to seriously consider which is the more urgent threat to the American future: the depredations of a highly destructive welfare state or corrosive racial division.

It is not a simple choice. We did not need the Simpson trial to remind us that racial divisions in America are widening. This is a society in which one cannot today spit without it becoming a race issue. In such a society, even conservatives need to consider whether a Powell presidency, for all its regressiveness regarding radical reform of the welfare state, might not be best for the country.