Roger Wilkins' thoughtful article, "White Racism Is Still the Problem," {op-ed, Dec. 5} makes some valid points. He is correct that racism still "pervades American society" -- although whites are not alone responsible for this sorry condition. He is also correct to caution against changing the civil rights focus from race to class differences -- although a measure of attention to present unyielding barriers that stand in the way of equal economic opportunities would certainly enhance the rehashed (and somewhat outdated) rhetoric of the 1960s.

Nonetheless, Wilkins' call to blacks to hold "on to racial politics," if heeded, would ensure for the foreseeable future the very condition he decries. It is unmistakably the politics of race that perpetuates the we/them attitudes that dominate both camps. The centerpiece of that political agenda over the past two decades has been "affirmative action," a pleasant enough phrase that masks a program that has had a devastating impact on the overwhelming majority of Afro-Americans in this country.

Are we really astonished that a selection process grounded on racial favoritism has fostered simmering hostilities among those disfavored because of their skin color? Is it really so surprising that the relatively few who are chosen under a special minority program bristle at the suggestion that they are "affirmative action" employees? And what about the millions of Afro-Americans on whom the quota door slammed after admittance of the designated token representatives? Is their growing disenchantment with the one-dimensional racial politics of "affirmative action" really so incomprehensible?

Roger Wilkins urged that we heed the following words of Dean Haywood Burns of the City University of New York Law School at Queens College: "A race-transcendent politics is most likely to succeed when the white community takes responsibility for overcoming its racism, not when the black community decides to forget it."

Whites can, of course, continue to pretend that they are meeting this responsibility by the imposition and implementation of "affirmative action" programs -- using race to get beyond racism. But the reality is that -- quite apart from the moral bankruptcy of so racist a policy -- the increasing flood of immigrants to our shores ensures that what has been a most inhospitable experiment for most Afro-Americans through the 1970s and 1980s will be openly hostile to all of them in the 1990s as other sizable minority groups clamor with equal intensity for their claim to a proportionate share of the "affirmative action" pie. The politics of race has long since ceased to be a black-white engagement.

My thesis is certainly not that the assaults on racism should be shelved. Wherever, whenever and however it is manifested, the evil of racism must be openly confronted and defiantly crushed. At the same time, however, America must come to grips with the stark reality that our public education system is failing the vast majority of its student population, large numbers of whom are black. As the educational gap between public and private schools continues to widen, fewer and fewer students are emerging from the inner cities with the basic skills needed to be competitive in the work force.

The politics of race has for too long blinked at this increasing educational disparity. Its preoccupation with racial number-juggling among applicants for employment has done little to address the core problem. Beneath the "affirmative action" bandage, there has been festering a public education cancer receiving neither attention nor treatment. Therein lies the bittersweet irony: with the "affirmative action" promise of introducing increasing numbers of minimally qualified blacks into the work force has come a public education system that deprives a preponderance of that racial group of the basic skills necessary to realize that promise.

If we collectively do not soon move to a "race transcendent politics" that deals with educational needs -- and deals with them effectively -- the racism that still gnaws at the body politic will overtake its entire anatomy, and undoubtedly with a vengeance.

The writer was assistant attorney general in charge of the Civil Rights Division from 1981 to 1988.