Alan L. Keyes is outrageous. And he loves it.

Perhaps it is something in his stance, his somewhat regal manner, so self-assured -- his mischievous smile, the casual, almost mocking way he touches a flame to the tip of his Dunhill -- that suggests a relish for combat.

Keyes is black, conservative, the assistant secretary of state who has emerged as a leading spokesman for the administration's "constructive engagement" policy toward South Africa as well as a leading architect of U.S. policy toward the United Nations. He has a reputation as a maverick in the State Department, a hard-line Reaganaut amid bland striped-pants diplomats, some of whom would just as soon see him curbed.

Now their wish may come true. In a fierce flurry of bureaucratic infighting over the U.S. contribution to U.N. agencies earlier this week, Keyes submitted his resignation, saying he had been treated in a racially demeaning manner by Deputy Secretary of State John Whitehead.

To Keyes' mild surprise -- he has threatened to resign before, only to be talked out of it by Secretary of State George Shultz -- this time Shultz accepted.

The department's top black -- out.

Whitehead yesterday called the racial allegation "a completely outrageous, inaccurate charge. There's no truth to that whatever. It's a cheap shot."

"I don't know if Whitehead is a racist and I don't care," Keyes said yesterday. "He's a wealthy Wall Street stockbroker who has utter contempt for the effective use of the taxpayers' money." Keyes said he "wouldn't be able to do my job" effectively under the strictures imposed by Whitehead.

Keyes' resignation is effective Nov. 13. He set, then canceled, a press conference for today to explain his actions, then was scheduled to appear on today's "CBS Morning News." Whether he will accompany President Reagan when the president gives his annual speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Monday is undecided.

It has been on the subject of South Africa that Keyes has been the most vociferous.

He's added a term to the debate -- "black empowerment."

And a new energy. His style, says one State Department official, is to "charge and rip their lips off."

Until his resignation, Keyes had planned to be at the center of the fray when Congress considers strengthened sanctions against South Africa this fall, arguing that sanctions erode the economic base the country's blacks are using -- as in the recent strike by the National Union of Mineworkers -- to gain political power.

"It is useful," says a State Department official, "for the Republican right wing to have someone who's willing to go into battle on South Africa in much the same way as {Assistant Secretary of State} Elliott Abrams goes into battle for the contras."

Says Keyes: "I am not important in this whole discussion. What is important is that certain things in the discussion on South Africa are being neglected, and this country is on the verge of contributing to a tremendous tragedy for a lot of people, and it should be stopped."

Facing Keyes in a hearing, Rep. George W. Crockett Jr. (D-Mich.) said the administration decided to "trot out" a black man to advance a policy "hated by the overwhelming majority of black people in this country."

"They have put a black face on an antiblack policy," says TransAfrica's Randall Robinson, who has debated Keyes on television, "and to the extent that Keyes accepts this betrayal of African interest and black interest willingly, one can only speculate that he does it out of personal career ambition."

Keyes chuckles at this "personal" attack. "That tells me that he doesn't have a case. That's a sure sign that I have won the argument."

Keyes, 37, who has a Harvard doctorate in political science and a background as a champion orator, is not easily dismissed. Where Robinson and his political allies see a self-serving advocate for a bankrupt administration policy, others -- conservatives in particular -- consider Keyes a volcano of conviction and eloquence.

"Intelligent, knowledgeable and, yes, courageous," says former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, who plucked him from the ranks of young foreign service officers in 1983 and brought him to the U.N. with ambassadorial rank.

"A man of extraordinary independent moral force. He would quit if he thought a policy were racially motivated," says Allan Bloom, the conservative University of Chicago professor and bestselling author of "The Closing of the American Mind," who became Keyes' intellectual mentor at Cornell in the late '60s when Keyes, then 17 years old, was still "an ordinary black liberal."

Now Jet magazine offhandedly refers to him as "the brilliant conservative diplomat."

His convictions about South Africa, he says, are heartfelt, deeply influenced by his own agony as a black American at the injustices done his race. He is, he says, "obsessed" by the problem of justice and how to achieve it.

And he entered the South Africa debate -- although it lies outside his official State Department responsibilities for international organization affairs -- "because, I suppose, I insist upon it ...

"It's my sincere conviction, contrary to all the stereotypes that even some blacks, liberals and others like to portray, that black people in this country are thinking human beings, and if I have a case to make based upon facts and reason, they're going to judge it on the merits."

In April of 1969, black militants at Cornell University seized the student center and, brandishing rifles and shotguns, forced the administration to accede to their demands. An atmosphere of intimidation swept the campus, and moderate blacks were urged to embrace revolution. The New York Times reported that one black student fled the campus after his life was threatened.

The student was Alan Keyes. And it was Prof. Bloom who spirited him out of Ithaca in the middle of the night after persuading him to take the threats seriously. In "The Closing of the American Mind," Bloom tells how, with "a mixture of cowardice and moralism not uncommon at the time," the university provost had refused to protect Keyes -- not identified by name in the book -- when Bloom reported the matter.

In an interview, Bloom recalls Keyes as a student of surpassing intelligence and eloquence whose quick grasp of political philosophy put him "way ahead of everyone" in the small, elite group of six-year PhD students in which he was the only black. At the same time, he "was a member of what later became the Black Liberation Front. He went to all the meetings. He was not somebody begging to be accepted by white society."

Yet Keyes "was always afraid of corrosive sentiments. The implication of this movement was that the country was incurably racist ... Alan was contemptuous of that. He had a view of how the black students should behave -- peaceful, independent, strong ... He really thought it was possible for blacks in America and in universities to lead a fully human life, that this was a moment when things had opened up and they could get a real education."

As Keyes says, "I didn't approve of the idea of violence on campuses. I just dissented from the view that ... carrying around guns had something to do with education. I, at least, had gone to the university to do something else." Bloom helped him do it, introducing him to Plato, the founding fathers, Lincoln and others. Political theory became Keyes' passion, and today he still regularly rereads "The Federalist Papers," Thucydides, Montaigne and other favorites.

He had been raised an Army brat, one of five children of a command sergeant major, and the family moved frequently. He read widely from an early age. His father loved to discuss "politics and life, {and} there was a premium in our house on the ability to express yourself." He won oratorical contests in high school in San Antonio, and in 1967 became the first black president of Boys Nation.

Keyes suffered racial discrimination. "I can still remember living in Augusta and getting on buses and going to the back." On TV he saw a black worker demonstrating with a sign saying, "I Am a Man," and "I told myself, 'Needless to say!' ... One spends part of one's time making it quite clear to everybody that there isn't any difference of potential based on the whole question of race."

At Cornell, he faced another challenge -- "the question of your identity. Those were the days of black pride, and everybody was discovering their blackness." Keyes began asserting to "those who wished to impose an identity upon me that, as I put it to people these days, 'black' is whatever I do. It's not to be defined by somebody else."

This put him at odds with black campus leaders. "To appeal to black middle-class guilt, they'd bring people in from the inner cities to talk about the life of real black people ... and this, to me, was nonsense. It was no more real or false than anybody else's life. That to be black meant you had to somehow understand The Pimp as part of your experience -- yuuuch!"

As he talks, Keyes lounges comfortably in a deep leather chair in his State Department office, which is large, with a wide view of Foggy Bottom. There's a bust of Lincoln behind the desk, a certificate signed by Ronald Reagan, a photo of his wife Jocelyn Marcel and their two children.

Dapper in a dark blue pin-stripe suit and red power tie, he crosses one leg over the other, strokes his beard. Lights a Dunhill.

"People come up to you and say you can't be a human being, you have to be a black person," he continues, "and I'm saying to myself, 'I don't want that, either.' " He pronounces it "EYE-ther."

Bloom quit Cornell in the turmoil and took Keyes and other students to Paris for a year, where they hung around cafe's, audited university classes and talked political theory late into the night with luminaries like Raymond Aron. Then Keyes entered Harvard, where he spent the better part of eight years (his dissertation was on Alexander Hamilton) "basically floundering about ... trying to understand certain questions."

He thought about justice, what it means to be free and fully human, and the "fragility of the democratic way of life" that sustains these possibilities.

"I'm obsessed with the question of justice because a certain kind of injustice was obviously a very important part of what I am, like all black people in America, and there was a strong emotional reaction to that. But really, the question raised by injustice is not an emotional question only. The question raised by injustice is, 'What is justice?' "

He says he still struggles with that question. On a personal level, he concluded that he didn't want to be dragged down by bitterness, that he was "part of that generation that benefited from the results" of the civil rights movement, and that the "way in which to fulfil those ideals is to concentrate on being the best citizen, the best human being, one can ...

"I think people who consider that somehow it's more important to prove that they are really blacks or really Italians or really Poles are missing the real significance of being Americans, that there's such a thing as common humanness."

Keyes remains hard to pigeonhole under any orthodoxy.

The right-wingers who have embraced him, he says, tend to look at South Africa and see minerals and communists.

When Keyes looks at South Africa, "I see injustice."

Jeane Kirkpatrick recalls the moment she first saw Keyes, in Bombay in the late '70s. She was fending off an aggressive group of left-wing Indian intellectuals in a seminar, and getting the worst of it, when suddenly "I heard a voice from the back of the room coming to my rescue like the cavalry over the hill just before the execution, with this eloquent argument that hadn't occurred to me at all."

It was Keyes, an obscure passport-stamping vice counsel in the U.S. embassy.

He went on to become a desk officer in the State Department's office of southern African affairs, then a member of the prestigious policy planning staff, before Kirkpatrick brought him to New York as the U.S. representative to the U.N. Economic and Social Council.

A colleague at the time recalls Keyes, shortly after his arrival in New York, meeting with Soviet representatives who were attacking the United States: "Most new people would sit back, but Alan asked for the microphone. He just tore into the goddam Soviets, told them, 'We don't have to take this kind of stuff from you.' It was amazing."

In November 1985 Keyes was appointed by President Reagan as assistant secretary of state responsible for U.S. relations with 76 multinational organizations, including the U.N. He has pressed for reforms there that favor the United States and has been urging Congress to restore cuts it made last year in the U.S. contribution to the world organization, arguing that this is needed to maintain our "leverage."

It was a dispute with Whitehead over this issue that led to Keyes' resignation this week. In a meeting last Friday, the two men squared off on how $65 million made available by Congress in a 1987 supplemental appropriation should be distributed among specialized U.N. agencies. Keyes contended that more should be given agencies whose policies tend to support U.S. interests and values, and less to agencies that are less cooperative -- a concept at the heart of the administration's efforts to "reform" the United Nations. Whitehead, sources close to Keyes said, wants to distribute the funds as has been done in the past, more or less on a pro rata basis.

But Whitehead said yesterday that in fact there was no matter of principle at stake, because Congress decided last November how the funds were to be allocated, and all that was involved in his dispute with Keyes was whether money should be delayed to certain agencies for a two-week period. He said the dispute was essentially over "a minor administrative decision."

In pressing his views during the meeting, sources said, Whitehead talked past Keyes directly to his subordinates in a manner Keyes felt was demeaning. Whitehead said yesterday that Keyes arrived at the meeting with two colleagues and "we had a general discussion. Later I find he's offended because I asked some questions of a couple of people."

On Monday Keyes asked for a meeting with Shultz and Whitehead, the department's No. 2 official, and in it complained about his treatment. He was assured that no racial slur had been intended and that he had their full support.

Nevertheless, Whitehead stood his ground in the policy dispute, and Keyes, feeling that his credibility had been undermined, submitted his resignation Tuesday. Shultz accepted it in writing Wednesday. Yesterday, Keyes said he thought "the whole racial aspect has been overblown," but that Whitehead had "contempt" for the effective use of the $65 million.

Whitehead, a former New York investment banker and cochair of the Republican National Finance Committee, has a reputation for courtesy. "I have no racial prejudice," he said yesterday. "... At the State Department I have taken up the cudgels for having some blacks at higher levels."

Despite such infighting, Keyes had managed until his resignation to increase his sway by shrewd maneuvering and sheer force of personality. "Alan has made a lot of friends on the Hill, as well as around town," says Kirkpatrick. "I wouldn't be surprised, personally, to see him take a turn at American politics someday, running for office."

A colleague speculates, "Perhaps he'll be our first black secretary of state."

While there has been a good deal of department scuttlebutt about the supposedly strained relations between Keyes and Chester A. Crocker, as assistant secretary of state for African affairs the department's lead spokesman on "constructive engagement," some officials think they complement one another nicely. "Crocker does better with Alan at his side," says one. "He's emboldened, and makes stronger arguments."

The administration's policy of constructive engagement -- originally shaped by Crocker, a veteran diplomat and respected insider -- is the use of diplomacy instead of economic sanctions and disinvestment to encourage change in South Africa.

In a joint hearing before the House subcommittees on Africa and on international economic policy and trade June 16, the two sat side by side as Crocker explained that, although the administration was implementing the sanctions mandated last November by Congress, they were having little effect.

He seemed to be bogging down under questioning by Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.), author of the strengthened sanctions bill that Congress will consider this fall. Dellums kept asking, "What will work?"

"We must have a diplomacy that's involved and in touch," Crocker was saying, rather tiredly, when Keyes spoke up.

Though he spoke extemporaneously, it sounded like an oration. It would be a tragedy, he said, for blacks to come to power in South Africa only to "rule over the rubble."

"There is another way," he said -- "black empowerment" through the kind of labor organizations that have been an "important force for shaping social change" around the world. Then his voice rose and filled the room:

"Eighty percent of the labor in South Africa is provided by black people. That means that the power in that society is concentrated in the hands of blacks. The question is, how do you help them effectively to organize and use that power?

"When I see what they have been able to accomplish, in spite of repression, in spite of every attempt to break that power, I say to myself, 'In the critical area, apartheid has failed, and what we have to do is exploit that failure.' That failure has occurred in the modern economic sector . . .

"You ask where the pressure comes from. It hasn't come from the outside. You give yourselves too much credit. The black people of South Africa have been able to organize themselves to put effective pressure on the situation, and our question should be, how do we back them up? ...

"So it seems to me that the answer to your question is precise and clear ... The white South African government in the end will yield, not because it wants to, but because the future for blacks and whites in South Africa will be impossible unless such negotiations occur, with the kind of power base we can help to develop for the black community."

In prepared testimony earlier, Keyes had laid the statistical groundwork for his rhetoric. Comprehensive U.N. sanctions against South Africa, he had said, could result in the loss of 2 million jobs for blacks, and disinvestment was harmful, too.

Keyes' eloquence and energy may yet have a substantial impact when the debate reheats this fall -- even if he is no longer a diplomat, he plans to join the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, where he will write policy papers.

As passions run high, it sometimes seems that the polarization of the two sides is absolute.

"Either because of overwhelming political naivete' or grave intellectual dishonesty," says Robinson of TransAfrica, a black American lobby on Africa and the Caribbean, "he refuses completely to respond to the central question of political empowerment of black South Africans. He confines himself wholly to economic questions, overstating even in that regard the damage that comprehensive sanctions would do in any permanent way to the South African economy."

Asked about this, Keyes declines to paint a political scenario for South Africa, citing the delicacy of his official position. But he does say that if black labor unions continue to grow stronger, "one imagines the day when" they will be able to "bring the South African economy to a halt, which they can't do today. What they do with that power is entirely up to them to decide, but I presume that it would reflect the agenda of their desire for justice."

While Robinson thinks "sanctions constitute the last peaceful alternative," Keyes thinks they will actually help bring on violence by weakening nonviolent alternatives.

"Emotions are not a policy," he says.

The question raised by injustice is: What is justice?

"It's something I care about very deeply," he says, leaning forward in his chair. "I think that it's terribly important that the idea that democracy can work be vindicated in South Africa ... All the things that the black people of South Africa have been denied can be realized if they can establish a real democracy.

"But they won't do it through a cataclysmic violence or revolution. Out of the barrel of the gun has not grown freedom. Out of the barrel of the gun, when you look around the world, has grown tragedy -- in Ethiopia, and in Uganda and in Cambodia. It is the betrayal of the democratic aspiration, not its realization."

At a symposium of the House Republican Study Committee on Capitol Hill in June, Rep. Michael Bilirakis (R-Fla.) asked Keyes, who was testifying, if the fact that he is black gave him any special feelings for South African blacks.

"I've never really thought of that as my primary motive, to tell you the truth," Keyes replied, adding that "the challenge of being an American" is most important for him personally.

Atthe same time, he went on, South Africa is "not only the tragedy of black suffering and oppression, it's also the tragedy of the repression of white South Africans, the repression of their goodness and decency, and the betrayal of that ... by a system that corresponds not one whit to the better part of their heritage. It's a tragedy for human beings." Later, in the hall, Keyes seemed pleased with himself. "One feels impelled to say that," he said with a grin, "when they imply that one's interest in South Africa is because one is black." He bummed a Dunhill off an aide and lit up, his smile broadening.

"It is, of course, I don't deny that. But not exclusively. It's for all the people, black and white.