The other day we got a taste of how the Reagan people are going to talk about civil rights in the next campaign, and it left me wondering who they are really talking to.

William Bradford Reynolds, who as head of the Justice Department's civil rights division has been on the front line as the architect of the civil rights policy of this administration, made a speech in which he termed racial quotas "morally wrong" and pledged, among other things, that the administration wouldn't seek or accept them to remedy racial discrimination.

Since there is nothing new in the opposition to the policy of affirmative action by this administration, one can only ask why the Justice Department is bothering to weave its old positions into flammable fabric?

I think Reynolds' speech is an obvious political decision to get the word out on Ronald Reagan's positions in stronger terms than ever before the l984 election. The economy has caused an erosion of support for Reagan among white blue-collar voters who, when they look toward the future, find it grim indeed.

If the president's pollsters have been looking at the numbers as l984 approaches, speeches like Reynolds' seem to be a political decision to paint the president as a champion of blue-collar workers by playing up to prejudices and presenting a convenient scapegoat. Republican strategists could hope to attract the blue-collar workers they have lost through a stagnant economy by using the racial quota issue to inflame anti-black prejudices on a highly incendiary issue that has been somewhat dormant in people's minds.

When Reynolds said, "Every worker who was not hired or promoted because of race will be restored to his or her rightful place," it was a rallying cry for people whose opposition is based on misconception and fear.

Reagan administration officials must know that affirmative action, a highly misunderstood policy, has succeeded beyond a doubt, but is in a precarious position precisely due in large part to the administration's own actions.

Just the other day, the veteran analyst, William Taylor, director of the Center for National Policy Review at Catholic University said of affirmative action's success: "Essentially the concept of affirmative action has operated not to displace any person from a position or job that that person has held. In some cases, the application of affirmative action has disappointed the expectations of some white people, and that's what they call reverse discrimination."

It is more than Reynolds' recent speech that is carrying the Republicans' civil rights message. Several major court cases dealing with the use of quotas to remedy discrimination are pending. Earlier this year, the administration intervened on behalf of white, female and Hispanic policemen in New Orleans who are fighting a court settlement that required that one black be promoted for every white until the supervisors in the department are 50 percent black. Just this week, Justice sought to have overturned a court order requiring the police in Detroit to promote equal numbers of blacks and whites to the rank of lieutenant.

But just in case the right people didn't know this, Reynolds wipes away the policies of the four previous administrations by claiming the United States now has a "racial spoils system." How disgusting that this mean message was peddled at an Amherst College lecture that honored the father of civil rights, Charles Houston.

As Taylor explains, based on the principles of this country, there's a natural resistance to using race or sex for the allocation of benefits. "While that principle is certainly not practiced, it is basic to our country, so that when you start talking about doing anything based on race or sex there's a natural resistance to it. Then, those who are opposed in the administration use that natural resistance to emphasize the negative aspects of affirmative action and make the most glaring use of race and numbers."

There is a big danger in this kind of racial sabre-rattling coming from the highest quarters of our land. But it is the height of irresponsibility to inflame racial passions for political gain.