What is the Bush administration's position on racial quotas? If you know the answer to that one, then you know more than the Bush administration itself knows.

Not so long ago, the president vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990 on grounds that it would lead to racial quotas in employment. But several weeks ago President Bush decided that scholarships set aside for blacks and other minorities were all right - so long as federal money was not used.That decision pulled the rug out from under a black official of his own administration, who had ruled that race-based scholarships were illegal.

Does this mean that racial quotas are wrong in employment but right when it comes to scholarships? Or does it mean only that the Bush administration was being politically "pragmatic" once again?

In the long run, unbridled pragmatism can turn out to be very impractical, even in political terms. Once friend and foe alike see you as following no principle, it will be hard to maintain the respect of either.

Voters have already shown that they will accept either pro-abortion or anti-abortion candidates better than they will accept candidates who waffle on the issue. Being totally pragmatic can be a real handicap.

When 1992 rolls around, the Bush administration is certain to be attacked for vetoing the Civil Rights Act of 1990 and for putting even limited restrictions on race-based scholarships. What principle can they cite and still be believable?

Like so many political controversies, the issue of race-based scholarships was blown out of all proportion in the media. Most black students in college receive financial aid, but very little of it is set aside by race. They get financial aid because they come from low-income families - and this fact doesn't change, regardless of what the official ruling may be on race-based scholarships.

What low-income students need is money - not a racial label on that money. What high-income students need to do is pay their own way, regardless of what color they are. If the president had said that plainly, he would have won the respect of blacks and whites alike.

More important, putting a stop to racial preferences and quotas would defuse the dangers of a growing racial backlash in this country - a backlash that has torn other countries apart.

Anyone who believes that racial preferences help minorities should think about the fact that the first minority hiring preferences in this country appeared in 1834 - giving American Indians preferences in employment by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. What has a century and a half of various government "help" done for the American Indians? They are today one of the few groups with lower incomes than blacks.

Sometimes a small amount of help at a strategic point - financial aid in college, for example - can be very important in creating a self-supporting, educated class. The ban on race-based scholarships would have had no real impact on needy students.

If a few upper-income minority students had to pay their own way, that would be a small price to pay to defuse a dangerous polarization over preferences and quotas.