Make no mistake about this: The question of "race-exclusive" scholarships for college students is difficult, complex and ambiguous, not to mention scarcely susceptible to easy or final answers. But make no mistake about this, either: If there's a way to reduce the issue to its most oversimplified form, to turn it into an emotionally charged political football, the cynical men of the Bush White House will find -- and then exploit -- it.

Whether this process already is underway seems to be known only to those who may or may not engineer it, and they aren't talking. By the same token, whether the policy declaration on minority scholarships by an assistant secretary in the Department of Education represents broad Bush policy or merely one man's opinion seems at this point to be undecided; a report in The Washington Post late last week suggested that the White House can't decide whether to climb aboard the bandwagon built for it by Michael Williams or to find another ticket to ride.

All of which is to say that the political ramifications of the issue are a long way from resolved, and they won't be until the Bushies determine precisely how desperate they're going to have to be in order to hold on to the White House two years hence. But the betting here is that they watched this year's North Carolina senatorial race with more than passing interest, and that they went to school on Jesse Helms's contemptuous use of "quota" and "affirmative action" charges to fend off a vigorous challenge by Harvey Gantt.

The message from North Carolina was that racial fears are as deeply entrenched as ever and that, just as in the glorious past, they can pay rich political dividends. Who is so naive as to doubt that George Bush, who played them like a Stradivarius in the 1988 presidential campaign, will decline to stoop to them once more in 1992? And who, moreover, can doubt that in the "race-exclusive" issue he and his water-carriers sense the makings of what Ralph R. Smith, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, calls "Willie Horton goes to college"?

The only problem is that the question of scholarships based on race isn't exactly an affirmative-action issue and certainly isn't a quota issue. Scholarships specifically designated for blacks or members of other minority groups don't raise the specter of government coercion and don't deny whites, or anyone else, their "rights." They are intended purely and simply to make college education more generally available to people who in the past have been denied it either by racial discrimination or economic need; they are an important weapon -- in the minds of some an absolutely essential one -- in the effort to make higher education genuinely "open," so to eliminate them on the grounds of legal nicety would be both stupid and mean.

These, mind you, are the words of one who firmly opposes virtually all affirmative-action programs and to whom the mere idea of quotas is anathema. Hiring or promoting someone solely for considerations of race or ethnicity or sex is utterly objectionable in my view, all the more so if it is at the expense of someone else who is more qualified for the position; the same goes for mandating that a specific percentage of anything -- jobs, college admissions, journalistic assignments, whatever -- be set aside for persons of any race, ethnicity or sex. In a meritocratic society, which ours at least purports to be, to give anyone a leg up for reasons irrelevant to merit is, as we used to say in the late and unlamented 1950s, un-American.

But these are not the issues raised by Michael Williams's interpretation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent Supreme Court rulings on racial issues. He contends that under the prohibition of racial or ethnic discrimination by federally funded institutions, it is illegal for a college or university to award scholarships on the basis of race or ethnicity -- that this constitutes a form of racial discrimination, even if not in the received sense of the term, that is barred by federal law.

In the narrowest sense Williams probably is right, but in the spirit of the law he is dead wrong. Even if one accepts that the evolution of American society since 1964 has changed the definition of racial discrimination -- if one accepts that it is possible to discriminate against whites as well as blacks -- it remains that the overriding purpose of that year's law, as well as the Voting Rights Act that followed a year later, was to provide legal protection for blacks against discrimination both de jure and de facto; to interpret it now as providing protection for whites against nonexistent denials of their "rights" is, to say the least, a fanciful reading of both the law itself and the history of its enactment.

The truth of the matter is that the existence of "race-exclusive" college scholarships is attributable not to a campaign to deny educational aid to whites but one to make it available to people who in the past have not enjoyed it. For so long as scholarships have existed, colleges have used them not merely to help the most intellectually deserving but also to serve other ends; just as tax policy exists to do more than raise revenue, so too scholarship policy exists to do more than reward brainpower.

Leaf through any college catalogue or prospectus and you'll find, where scholarships are listed, a remarkable variety of offerings. To be sure many are linked to particular areas of academic expertise, but others are narrow in different ways: aid for students from specific states or cities or regions, for graduates of certain secondary schools, for children of employees of individual corporations or other institutions.

The sources of these scholarship funds vary as widely as do the scholarships themselves, but all of them are designed to single out young people for aid not solely because of their intellectual ability but for reasons that, it can be argued, are essentially extraneous to the classroom. No one objects to these; if students from Philadelphia have ever complained about financial aid earmarked for students from Pittsburgh, word of their uprising has yet to reach me. No one has suggested, at least to my knowledge, that these scholarships discriminate against anyone or that by giving aid to students who fit certain descriptions they deny it to those who do not.

The same goes for "race- exclusive" scholarships. Their purpose is not to restrict the opportunities of whites but to enlarge those of blacks. Until quite recently higher education in this country was, outside the predominantly black institutions, pretty much a lily-white affair. Then it got religion in the 1960s and 1970s -- largely because of pressure from the federal government -- and began to look for ways to attract students from minority groups, blacks in particular. Sensibly enough, it turned to scholarships, both because blacks tend to need financial help more than whites and because offering such aid is a way of competing among schools for the best students from any group, whatever its particular nature, that happens to have been targeted.

This was, in the minds of most people, a Good Thing: a useful instrument not merely for the diversification of higher education but, of far greater importance, for the education of able black students and thus for the expansion and reinforcement of the black middle class. But then Michael Williams came along to raise his exceedingly narrow objection, and suddenly everyone is crying discrimination where no one even knew it existed.

That's because it didn't and doesn't. But be that as it may, the legitimacy of "race-exclusive" scholarships is likely to be determined not by the facts of the case or by reasoned discussion, but by the political exigencies of George Bush. If 1988 is any guide -- and why shouldn't it be? -- the outlook is not promising.