It was, I suppose, the gratuitousness of the thing that hit me. Had there been some allegation that race-specific scholarships are keeping deserving white students out of college; had there been some evidence that black or Hispanic students are overrunning our university campuses; had there been a contention that the government was somehow promoting racial unfairness, then the newest edict out of the Department of Education might have been less jarring.

But Michael L. Williams' decree that colleges receiving federal aid may no longer offer scholarships on the basis of race came out of the blue, in answer to a question that no one seemed to be asking. It makes you wonder what mind set -- or what political consideration -- prompted the ruling. Williams, assistant secretary for civil rights and one of the administration's favorite black conservatives, offered an easy explanation. "We're just law-enforcement folks," he said, citing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids discrimination on the basis of race, religion or national origin.

But when the law-enforcement folk, absent any complaint or any interest in your rights, start enforcing novel interpretations of the law against you, it's not unreasonable to wonder what's going on.

America's racial problem is not that black people have too much opportunity, but that they have too little. And the Reagan-Bush people have shown little interest in addressing that problem. Instead, they not only have adopted the attitude that disparate racial outcomes are no business of the government but also moved -- again gratuitously -- to dismantle efforts to overcome the difference. It was the Reagan administration that sought, without any urging on the part of the affected jurisdictions, to overturn consent decrees aimed at increasing the number of black firefighters and police officers. It was Bush who vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990, designed to overturn several Supreme Court rulings that made it more difficult for minorities and women to bring discrimination suits.

In each case, the rationale was color-blind fairness. In each case, the effect was to protect the rights of white men. Do these fair-minded conservatives believe, with Jesse Helms and David Duke, that white men are this country's principal victims of discrimination?

What is so curious about the Department of Education ruling, which coincides with widespread worry over declines in black college attendance, particularly among black men, is that it has nothing to do with federal student aid. Instead, it forbids colleges and universities to use their own or other private resources for scholarships to increase the number of blacks on their campuses. The bitter irony is that the authority for Williams' ruling comes from a 1988 law -- enacted over a Reagan veto -- that allows the federal government to bar discrimination in any school that receives federal funds.

Even so, the ruling is more insensitive -- and politically symbolic -- than wrong. Williams' decree still would permit race as a consideration in awarding scholarships so long as race is not the only factor. In other words, whites must at least have a chance at the awards.

That doesn't particularly trouble me. It has long seemed to me that it makes more sense to give special consideration, whether for scholarships or admission, to those whose opportunity has been demonstrably restricted by economic or social factors. Help based on economic need, for instance, might still go disproportionately to blacks or Hispanics without removing from consideration the child of a poverty-stricken white family.

Making race the sole criterion introduces another aspect of unfairness. It takes children from well-off black families out of competition with their white peers and puts them in competition with members of the black underclass.

But those objections would be a good deal easier to swallow if they came from an administration that had demonstrated some concern for the special and continuing disadvantage of being black in America. As it is, the suspicion is that the whole business is, like Helms's dastardly TV ad or Bush's Willie Horton ploy, calculated to appeal to anti-black conservatives.

It may help Republicans win a few elections, but it could wind up costing them something more precious: their moral right to govern.