In a study more provocative than anyone probably anticipated, a private Washington consulting firm has documented what, until now, had been an unspeakable truth in metropolitan Washington.

In doing so, the Grier Partnership held up a mirror to the area's business community, exposing an unflattering image and reflecting light on a social ill that could have serious implications for the region's economy. Indeed, the 38-page study, titled, "The Washington Labor Force: An Asset in a Changing Economy," strips away a veneer that masks a false assumption about job opportunities in the local economy.

George Grier, a co-author of the study, which was conducted for the Greater Washington Research Center, says the most important finding of the work is the "superior quality" of the labor force in metropolitan Washington. Moreover, says Grier, the region's labor force is being utilized better than those in other major metropolitan areas.

That piece of information is probably useful to anyone contemplating a decision to relocate to the Washington area. But to say that it is the most important finding in the study is debatable, especially when the Grier study states unequivocally that women and black males in the area's labor force are underutilized.

These "important segments" of the population remain less fully utilized than others because of discrimination, the Grier Partnership concluded. If that's not the most important finding in the study, then metropolitan Washington is Utopia.

What makes this study significant -- perhaps more than any other in the center's current series on the local economy -- is its conclusion about the inability of college-trained blacks to obtain jobs commensurate with their education. It is even more significant because the nation's capital has probably attracted more university-trained blacks than any other area in the United States. It attracts ambitious and talented individuals -- blacks, whites and others -- from all regions of the country. To say that there is a lack of qualified blacks for professional and executive positions in Washington today is an anachronism that smacks of racism. A shortage of qualified job seekers is not the problem.

Grier makes no bones about it: Research shows that discrimination plays a significant role in the hiring preferences and practices of employers in metropolitan Washington. Research center officials tried to soften the indictment by suggesting that it doesn't necessarily mean there are "conscious" racial motives at work that limit participation by blacks in the labor force.

Indeed, the finding of discrimination is "not something to be depressed about," according to Grier and R. Robert Linowes, the research center's chairman. Unquestionably, Linowes and Grier have shown themselves to be honest and honorable men. But theirs is the perspective of white males, secure in their professions.

The following excerpt from the Grier study is the best evidence yet why many black males in metropolitan Washington, who hold undergraduate and advanced degrees from leading universities, are understandably depressed by their competitive disadvantage in the job market:

"Black males aged 25 to 34 with graduate-level educations are underrepresented in executive and professional jobs compared to any of the three other major race-sex groups.

"This gap is not a result of past inequities, but of present practices. As long as it persists, it will result in the inefficient utilization of the talents of a major sector of the region's population. Moreover, it will tend to discourage younger members of that group from pursuing the education that is necessary for them to contribute their fullest to the region's economy and to the support of themselves and their families. It will reduce the overall productivity of the region's working-age population, and it will add to the caseloads of public assistance agencies. Finally, it will increase community tensions. "The Washington economy has been able to bear these burdens in the past and still maintain a high overall level of prosperity. Whether it will be able to cope with them as well in the economic environment of the future remains to be seen.

"If black male residents of the metropolitan area were to participate in its labor force to the same extent as white men, the labor force would grow by 29,000 persons without any need for further increase in the population of working age.

"Of even more importance to the economic health of the Washington area would be a job structure for younger black males, more in keeping with their educational attainments. This improvement could also help reduce the costly intergroup tensions and social pathology that now result at least partly from underutilization of this important segment of the region's population."

While that may not be depressing, it's enough to cause concern, if not alarm, about the region's economy and social fabric.