President Bush's threats not to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1990 could hardly come at a time of more fragile race relations in America.

Indeed, minority groups and women are battling powerful conservatives and the extreme right wing for the president's ear on this issue just as racial strife intensifies in Teaneck, N.J., and the Bensonhurst part of New York City, as well as other areas.

A friend of mine who grew up in Brooklyn said she has never seen it so tense.

"The first licks of a fire," a bellwether of things to come elsewhere, is the way she characterized it with a shudder.

Yet there seems little recognition of this danger or of the opportunity to send a positive signal to blacks and women as Bush stubbornly listens to Attorney General Dick Thornburgh's arguments that the civil rights legislation would lead to hiring quotas.

Yet, as a New York Times editorial pointed out last week, "nobody, including the Attorney General, has produced anything but speculation" that the bill would lead to quotas.

"Indeed, the evidence is emphatically to the contrary," said the Times.

The proposed law seeks to strengthen protections that were in effect from 1971 to 1989 against job discrimination based on race or sex -- provisions that were weakened by Supreme Court decisions last year. Yet conservatives, including Thornburgh, didn't present to the Congress any evidence that quotas were established during those 18 years either.

Instead, conservative columnists have in recent days waged a hysterical war of words aimed at dissuading the president from doing the right thing.

One writer said the president was "seduced by his high approval rating among blacks" and was "being maneuvered into signing legislation that would make white males second-class citizens."

Give me a break!

Others trot out black conservatives such as Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell to air their tired arguments about the stigma of inferiority that accompanies racial preferences.

Why, pray tell, haven't centuries of white male preferences produced no such stigmas of their inferiority?

The answer is that the stigma argument is more a red herring than a real issue.

At stake here are simple justice and fairness.

But while conservatives continue to set up straw men, seasoned and reputable black leaders in both parties are sounding alarms about the president's position.

Former National Urban League president Vernon E. Jordan Jr. has warned that a veto by President Bush "would unleash a firestorm of protest . . . . Black people may have forgiven George Bush for the Willie Horton ads, but there will be no forgiveness for vetoing a bill that saves basic civil rights from the tender mercies of the Reagan Supreme Court."

Civil Rights Commission Chairman Arthur Fletcher, a Republican, argues that the bill doesn't set quotas at all, but merely sets goals.

Not unexpectedly, conservatives call goals "a euphemism" for quotas.

Advocates on both sides have noted that the president currently enjoys popularity among some blacks.

While I suspect that popularity has been highly overrated, it is true that Bush has thus far managed to maintain a better reputation among blacks than did Ronald Reagan, who was known as the "most anti-civil rights president" in a quarter-century.

It is in part the Reagan legacy -- eight years of disregard for the civil liberties of black people -- that is producing the current intolerance, a polarization so deep that a gang of white youths can attack an innocent black bystander who had come to their neighborhood to buy a used car, or a white police officer can shoot a black teenager in the back.

In today's charged atmosphere, Bush's veto of the civil rights bill would be a dangerous indignity for both nonwhites and women.

In its largest, deepest sense, this bill addresses the deep fears and feelings of disrespect felt by a large portion of our society.

And his signing it would be an important step to defuse racial tensions.

Should he persist in playing political games, once more signaling the unimportance of these groups, the consequences, as Jordan put it, may indeed be "a firestorm of protest."