THERE WE WERE, patting ourselves on the back and feeling smug and self-satisfied.

The race isn't about "race," we said, marveling at the maturity of the Philadelphia voter. The candidates had focused on real issues like crime, poverty, education and economic development.

Sure, there were some annoying little detours like the preoccupation with who was playing Monopoly with his own money and who couldn't remember how to fill out a financial disclosure form and who was afraid of letting us find out that his wife was a millionaire (as if we didn't know).

But on the whole, this was an issues-heavy campaign that might've bored the radio shock jocks and partisan bloggers but respected the intelligence of the average Philadelphian.

And then it happened.

We remembered that some of us are white, and some are black. More important, we rediscovered how useful it is to divide and conquer along racial lines.

It's an old game, of course, our favorite. And like the Mummers and soft pretzels and cheesesteaks, part of our birthright.

We can count on the Phillies to break our hearts each October, the Eagles to crush our souls in January, or the Sixers and Flyers to make us as miserable as spring allergies.

But the race game is even more dependable. It never fails to destroy the illusion that we could be a world-class city. Never lets us get too big or too cocky before it smacks us back down. And everyone who plays is a loser.

Take our current mayor, for example. John Street and his supporters played the game with superb skill when they tried to blame "white Republicans" for the bug in City Hall during the last mayoral election in 2003.

As Tigre Hill demonstrated in his brilliant documentary "The Shame of a City," it worked. Way too many Philadelphians were whipped into a lather about perceived racial bias in the federal prosecutor's office, and they sent Hizzoner back to City Hall for four more illustrious years.

It's probably fair to say that anti-Republican sentiment was just as strong as racial divisions in the 2003 election, so it's possible that the political statement people were making had less to do with color than with a desire to punish George Bush.

Possible, but unlikely. This is, after all, Philadelphia, the city run by the brothers and the sisters, as our mayor once famously observed. You can't miss the subtext in that message.

Just as you can't miss the meaning when Chaka Fattah criticizes Michael Nutter's stop-and-frisk plan by saying, "I'm sorry the councilman has to remind himself he's an African-American" and then suggests Nutter was making a "racial appeal" when he referred to the carnage in the black community.

Fattah is obviously a little touchy just now because he's squandered the considerable treasure he had going into this primary. He was the golden boy, the front-runner who was expected to win. Instead, he's trailing in the polls behind a white millionaire who has outspent him and a black ex-councilman who polls better in white communities than Bob Brady.

It's understandable that he'd be frustrated. But to launch sly attacks against a fellow African-American as not being all that black is unworthy of a U.S. congressman, and should be offensive to his constituents. Who has anointed any candidate as the arbiter of all that is authentic in the black community?

AND FATTAH is not the only one attacking Nutter's racial credibility.

During an endorsement interview with a local paper, someone asked the ex-councilman why he was having trouble "gaining traction in the African-American community."

Nutter's response was flip: "I could have come in here in baggy pants and my hat turned backwards . . ."

Some regarded that as an insult. But I think it was a reasonable reaction to a ridiculous premise - that Nutter is too removed from the so-called black experience to be able to inspire confidence among his own people.

Guess what? We are all his people. We are also the people of Chaka Fattah, and Dwight Evans, and Tom Knox, and Bob Brady. We'll also be the people of Al Taubenberger come November, and whoever else decides to throw his hat in the ring as an independent.

"We" want good schools.

"We" are sick of the carnage.

"We" hate the trash in the streets of this most beautiful city, shamed by a man who presides over a swamp called New Orleans.

"We" love this city and its suburbs and its trees and boulevards and monuments and historic ghosts.

And anyone who thinks otherwise doesn't deserve to represent us. *

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer.