Back during the jolly days of Watergate, people were summoned by the government of the United States and asked to serve on a jury. They were all asked the same question: Have you ever heard of Watergate, this scandal that had been on the front page of every newspaper, that was leading the nightly news seven days a week, that was causing resignations galore in Washington and that was, like termites in a wooden house, slowly bringing down the government? Lo and behold, some of them said no. It was a stunning display of candor.

Now in California we have somewhat the same thing. Mervin Field, whose California Poll queried voters after they had cast their ballots, reported that 3 percent of them said they had voted against Tom Bradley simply because he is black.

Once again, we have the kind of candor that stops you in your tracks. That there are racists in this country is no surprise. That probably more than 3 percent of the voters turned thumbs down on Bradley because of his skin color is also no surprise. What is surprising, though, is that so many people were willing to admit to a stranger with a clipboard that they are bigots.

This 3 percent just might have made the difference for Bradley since he lost the gubernatorial race to Attorney General George Deukmejian by 50,000 of the 7.4 million votes cast. His defeat could be attributed to many factors -- not the least of them an honest appraisal of the candidates by the voters. But Bradley is black and to overlook race as the deciding factor would be a tour de force in wishful thinking.

This brings us to Bill Roberts who, three weeks before the election, was fired as Deukmejian's campaign manager for saying that the polls might not give an accurate picture of the contest because race was a hidden factor. He estimated that about 5 percent of the voters were closet bigots--unwilling to vote for a black, but just as unwilling to say so. For that, Deukmejian axed him.

Why? The stated reason was that Roberts had raised the race issue, which both candidates were very busy pretending did not exist. Even after the election, Bradley seemed to have a hard time attributing his loss to racism: "It's possible it -- race -- had some impact, but it's sheer speculation."

Anyway, poor Bill Roberts was sacrificed to the spontaneous generation theory of racism -- that it materializes only after being mentioned and that the only way to deal with it is to ignore it. He was a victim of his times, an otherwise savvy fellow who did not understand that the days of confronting racism are gone. All over the country, politicians are dealing with the issue by ducking it.

In Washington, the prevailing ethic is that there is no longer any such thing as racism. The Reagan administration has all but gutted the Civil Rights Commission and the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department has been gelded. It stands on the sidelines on the issue of tax exemptions for schools that racially discriminate, fails to bring desegregation suits and devotes itself mainly to issuing reports that it is doing plenty. All the reports lack is credibility.

In fact, it is almost impossible to be a racist anymore. Some kids at Dartmouth put out an insulting article parodying black speech and a whole bunch of otherwise sensible people rushed to their defense. Jokes about blacks are back in vogue and the word "nigger" has made a resurgence. Little wonder that those California voters were so candid with Field's pollsters. They probably thought they were saying nothing shocking.

Their candor is startling, but understandable. They were talking in an environment in which racism has reached a level of respectability. If the government can argue the cause of schools that discriminate, if the president can douse the light that used to shine on bigots and allow them to breed like rats in the darkness, if the California candidates themselves can deal with the message only by firing the messenger, then it is not surprising that some people would have no compunction about owning up to bigotry. To the shame of us, they had no shame whatsoever.