For contemporary Americans, race is what sex was for the Victorians: frequently on the mind, almost never spoken of. Thus, George Bush referred to the "background" of the Education Department official who initially said college scholarships based solely on race are illegal. Bush found him to be "an extraordinarily sensitive, very intelligent person." By that, he meant "black."

Bush's Herculean attempt to avoid using a racial designation was, really, typical of the debate that followed. The president, having praised the education official, then said he wasn't sure the guy was right. He ordered a "quick readout" and an even quicker spike. Within days, the new policy was essentially a goner.

Not surprising. The short-lived policy was condemned by the civil rights community and in many newspapers for setting back the cause of blacks by about 112 years -- or so it was said. This was stated even though no one -- and I mean no one -- had any idea how many scholarships were awarded solely on the basis of race, and the Education Department had not said that race could not be a factor: Just not the only factor. If the policy itself was not condemned, then the making of it was. Who was this "sensitive" education official, Michael L. Williams, and what was the rush?

Well, Williams is precisely what Bush alluded to: black. Moreover, he is a black conservative, what is sometimes called "a movement conservative." By that is meant one who has a tendency to take a purist, maybe unrealistic position on certain matters. Affirmative action is one of those matters. Williams and like-minded conservatives (black or white) embrace it only conditionally. Granting a person a scholarship solely on the basis of race is an unacceptable version of affirmative action. Therefore, thumbs down.

In the immediate wake of Williams' decision, three things occurred to me. The first was that his pronouncement was hardly remarkable: scholarships ought not to be based solely on race, although race -- as a matter of public policy -- ought to be a factor. A racist nation owes amends.

But, second, that same public policy requires that nonminority people not conclude that somehow, by birth, they will be denied opportunities granted others. We only compound the tragedy of racism when a middle-class black gets a scholarship denied a poor white -- and please don't tell me it never happens. It does -- an exception, maybe, but one that (especially for cynical whites) proves a bundle of rules, some of them applicable to limousine liberals.

And, third -- okay: as long as Williams has raised the issue, let's discuss it. I say this because in the ghetto the immediate issue is not who goes to college (the black "intact" family has all but closed the wage gap with whites) but who gets to live until tomorrow. Here is a whole class of people who have, for some reason, fallen right through the floor. While most blacks have prospered, the poor have gotten even poorer. The statistics are both depressing and alarming -- so much so that the young black male is being discussed as if he were an endangered species -- "hunted" by everything from AIDS on the one hand to other young black males on the other.

To this calamity, so-called black conservatives like Williams have at least brought us a new lexicon: they talk about class. They announce what should be the obvious: something other than skin color is at work. For this slant, they are frequently criticized and sometimes insulted. Their credentials as blacks are questioned, their motives are impugned, and unless they are extremely careful, they are marginalized. In the civil rights movement, as on too many college campuses, only "politically correct" speech is tolerated.

But given the chance to actually have some sort of debate on race and class, Bush just caved. He marginalized Williams. There would be no debate. It was all political, and the discussion was as muffled and as clotted as Bush's initial description of Williams himself. What was important to Bush and to White House Chief of Staff John Sununu was to find a way to limit the political damage, especially after Bush had vetoed the civil rights act.

But there are other damages to consider. One is to the confidence of non-affluent whites that the playing field will be level. The other is to the black underclass, which may -- just may -- be poorly served by policies that seem to vindicate a crippling sense of victimization. These are the damages people like Williams have long wanted to discuss. Now he knows the meaning of "sensitive." It means marginal.