AND WE ARE NOT SAVED The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice By Derrick Bell Basic Books. 288 pp. $19.95

HARVARD LAW SCHOOL Professor Derrick Bell's new book, And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice, goes beyond the well-worn arguments, answers and accommodations about race that Americans are accustomed to reading by daring to combine fictional parables about race relations with academic arguments about issues ranging from affirmative action to busing. The book's principal value is its inventiveness; after his parables, which he calls "Chronicles," Bell and Geneva Crenshaw, a fictional '60s civil rights lawyer, debate the academic and legal points of the story's moral. Bell's daring technique allows us to look at race relations from a new perspective.

While there are no startling new answers revealed in the light Bell shines on the subject, he does offer an interesting proposal. The best strategy for improving race relations in the future, Bell writes, may well be for civil rights activists to ignore appeals for racial justice and to focus on class-based appeals for improving the condition of poor people in America.

The best books on race are novels -- Native Son, Invisible Man, Go Tell It on the Mountain -- for academic books on race frequently get lost in a statistical tangle of black-white comparisons, which in the end serve only to confirm the obvious: blacks are generally worse off than whites. Reports on race by foundations and government agencies attend to one specific problem or another with great seriousness and fanfare, as if solving that one problem would cure racism.

Novels and, it may be argued, histories are more illuminating on racial themes because they can convey the reality of racial discrimination -- the cultural biases, legal inequities, sexual rules and the struggle of children to understand so massive a sin, as well as the occasional triumph against all odds. The key to the novelist's success is the key to the success of And We Are Not Saved.

Bell succeeds at overturning many of the intellectual assumptions both blacks and whites hold on race-related issues in American life -- busing, affirmative action, black political power. That effort, alone, makes for interesting academic reading. But Bell, taking a cue from the novelist's art, improves on his work by devising fictional situations and characters to create human, even funny, plots about the various racial issues in modern American life.

For example, in a chapter called "The Unspoken Limit on Affirmative Action," Bell presents a character, DeVine Taylor, a self-made black businessman who offers financial support to assist a major law school in finding blacks to join its faculty. The number of blacks on the faculty grows from one to six. Then a seventh is found, a candidate with sterling credentials. At that point the law school's white dean enters the story. The seventh black won't be hired, although he is well-qualified. A "law school of our caliber and tradition simply cannot look like a professional basketball team," the dean decides.

The lesson here, Bell writes, is the false appeal of affirmative action as a cure for racial inequities: Whites don't really want more than a few token blacks on their team. They demand white-dominated and controlled institutions.

Blacks who believe that hard work is all it takes to achieve in a white institution, Bell argues, are ignoring the reality of racism.

After presenting the fictional stories, Bell then writes fictional dialogues in which he restates and debates the points made in the stories. In the busing story his debate centers on the point that school integration usually benefits whites for it leaves financial power and legal authority in white hands (for example, black teachers, not white, often lost their jobs after the integration of black and white school systems). As the dialogue about busing continues, it leads to a new point -- education, Bell writes, may not be the "real problem" facing blacks as they seek equality in America. As Bell's imaginary debating partner concludes: "If {education was the black man's problem} you and I would not encounter the discrimination we and even the best educated of us continue to experience."

And if education isn't the point, Bell argues through his characters, economics is the issue: "In a country where individual rights were created to protect wealth, we simply must find a means to prime the economic pump for black people . . . . Those conservatives are right about the need for blacks to get into jobs and off welfare."

Bell explores a series of racial issues in similar fashion. He goes forward into the future to dismiss the idea that blacks and whites could erase racial boundaries when faced with a common threat such as disease. For example, in his parable of "The Amber Cloud," Bell playfully creates a "Ghetto Disease" that turns the skin of affluent white children a dull amber color. In combination with being shunned because of their color change, the disease causes the confident rich kids to become "lethargic, suspicious, withdrawn, and hopelessly insecure, their behavior like that of many children in the most disadvantaged and poverty ridden ghettos, barrios, and reservations." Even when whites, at great government expense, find a cure for the pyschological aspects of the disease, they don't share it with blacks, Hispanics and other minorities. The argument is made that the remedy wasn't intended for minorities and suddenly the expense again becomes a consideration. Bell's point is that white America, even without overt racist practices, continues to pursue a racist policy and budget agenda.

Having sifted through the major race-related issues of our time, Bell takes the reader to an imagined convention of black leaders, where Geneva Crenshaw transcends their arguments to deliver her (and, one supposes, Bell's) strategy for achieving future racial harmony.

"In the future," Bell writes through his character, "civil rights campaigns, while seeking traditional forms of relief, should emphasize the gulf between our existing social order and our national ideals . . . in proposing new programs and maintaining existing ones, we should minimize their tendency to alienate whites and tokenize minorities and do so by urging that entitlement standards include class as well as racial disadvantage."

The road to this conclusion is a long one, filled with tiresome citations of legal cases and academic studies. Bell could have written a much shorter essay and made his point. But the human dimension added by his stories about the pain and psychic costs of flawed modern race relations make the trip worthwhile. Ideally, Bell might have simply allowed his "Chronicles" to make the point because they are far more effective and interesting than the legal and academic debates. Still, even with the dry, academic passages, Bell's book works. And We Are Not Saved is a valuable compendium of the various schools of thought on race in America. In its original juxtaposition of those view points, it has the potential to shift the national mindset as America continues to climb the mountain of racial problems.

Juan Williams, a writer for The Washington Post Magazine, is the author of "Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954 to 1965."