I had trouble getting the point of "For the People" the first time I saw it on Channel 32, because the argument seemed to be that blacks invented science, history, religion, literature and everything else.

And since the program is rough in production -- two men talking on camera, with occasional low-quality lantern slides -- and somewhat haphazard in argument, I began to wonder what the aim of it was. I soon discovered.

The central argument is that the tremendous civilization of Egypt was a black civilization. The pharaohs and the gods were black. The slides seem to support that contention.

But at first I was offended by the insistence that a kind of conspiracy had falsified the black contribution to that culture.

Come on, now, I said. Isn't that a bit paranoid?

And then I happened to read again one of the books I grew up on, "The Conquest of Civilization" by James H. Breasted (Harper & Brothers, New York & London, 1926). Breasted was among the famous Egyptologists of the time, and was invited to examine Tutankhamen's tomb soon after its discovery. He was a mover in the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, established with money from John D. Rockefeller Jr. One of his books, "Egyptian Servant Statues," is a minor treasure in itself. Dr. Breasted, in other words, was not some casual amateur writing books off the top of his head in a weekend, and his "Civilization" volume was designed to instruct teen-agers authoritatively. In the first chapter, these comments:

"The evolution of civilization has been the achievement of {the} Great White Race. In the territory adjoining ... there are only two other clearly differentiated races, the Mongoloid and the Negroid ... On the south lay the teeming black world of Africa, separated from the Great White Race by an impassable desert barrier, the Sahara ...

"Isolated thus, and at the same time unfitted by ages of tropical life for any effective intrusion among the White Race, the negro and negroid peoples remained without any influence on the development of early civilization.

"We may then exclude ... the wooly-haired, long-headed, dark-skinned Negroids on the south from any share in the origins or subsequent development of civilization."

The ancient Egyptians, he said, were white like the Italians and the Spanish, "despite their tanned skins." Egypt itself was not in Africa, for purposes of the book, but was part of the Fertile Crescent, which was not so woolly-headed or teeming or black.

All races are sufficiently close genetically that they interbreed, and cannot therefore be substantially different. Darwin was fascinated with the tendency of domestic animals to vary dramatically in appearance though genetically they were all much the same.

He noticed that pigeons come in yellow, tan, red, bronze, white, as well as the ancient blue-gray with bars on the wings. It is hard to believe a white pigeon with a head crest and black bib and scarlet legs and eye rings is genetically quite similar to a red pigeon with ruffs of feathers on the neck and elaborate feathers covering the feet entirely. And that both of them are virtually the same as the pigeons resting on generals' heads throughout this capital.

If you put them all together and let them breed at will, you will see how quickly they lose their astonishing looks and how soon the whole flock starts looking like street pigeons.

The same is true of dogs. The little Brussels griffon and the giant mastiffs, the glorious Welsh terrier and the yellow Labrador seem to have little in common, but they do. It is only by the most carefully controlled breeding (and killing all the pups that don't measure up in outward appearance) that dog breeds have been brought to the marvelous variety known today. But turn them all loose and in surprisingly few generations they all look like basic dogs.

The basic dog, that medium-sized long-legged curly-tailed beast found in alleys all over the world, has within it the possibilities of all the variations you find at a dog show. How easily and quickly these variations can be brought out, and how quickly lost, is known to every breeder.

We have never succeeded in breeding humans as ornamental as pigeons and dogs, but only because the project has never been tried. Even without formal programs it is easy to see how quickly blacks become white, or whites become black, if the two are crossbred a few generations. So it seems absurd to make much of genetic differences so minor. And as for cultural differences, any barbarian baby can be raised into any culture imaginable, as may be seen in America or Russia. Cultural differences are not usually very deep, as may be seen by looking at the South of 1987 and 1920. Cultures can change quickly. They are not cast in iron. Cultural antagonisms often result from things as slight as food preferences. I have myself felt the stigma of loving collards and disliking jazz. O I live in a no man's land. The differences are trifling, until they are exalted as passports.

Back to Breasted. If you were black and read those comments, you would probably be hurt, if you were young, and enraged if you were old.

You would notice the real point is not the fact of skin color in a particular pharaoh or god. The flat implication of the Breasted remarks is that blacks contributed nothing to civilization, presumably because they were largely occupied tossing spears about a teeming jungle.

That is the message that does the damage, not the dispassionate search for facts.

I remember a professor of Greek civilization who thought the world reached its peak in 5th-century Athens, and never mind the all too clear picture of it by its historians who chronicle the general bloodiness, stupidity, venality and so on. Every flaw in Athens he attributed to "Oriental influences of a most sorrowful kind," and when he could not help noticing Oriental influences in Greek art he winced as if discovering a toad in the birthday cake.

In Washington I know a woman who once announced she would not travel north of R Street. I mean you have to draw the line somewhere. You head up to Calvert Street or (God save us) American University and who knows what barbarians lurk?

We have all known people of the Christian faith who make careful distinctions between those who nod, those who bow, those who prostrate themselves, and those who don't do anything (the majority).

Whether this endless narrowing of the circle has some deep primitive base I do not know, but the amount of suffering it has caused is clear to the stupidest fool. A little more generosity inside the head is worth attempting -- the startling concept that a black or a Presbyterian or a Yale guy or a dandy upstanding hard-working reporter is not necessarily leprous, despite the amplitude of examples. In the meantime I hope it turns out Osiris was black as the ace of spades.