The Henry Harrison Sprague Scholarship at Harvard College is for those "in whole or in large part of New England colonial descent." The Reuben Baker Scholarship is for "a resident of Latrobe, Penn., or, there being no such resident, a resident of the western part of Pennsylvania." The Helen E. Millington Memorial Scholarship is for "students whose fathers are deceased and whose mothers have not remarried." The list goes on for 250 pages.

The point is not that it still sometimes helps to be white. (Harvard, in practice, guarantees financial aid to all comers.) The point is that fate spews out all sorts of arbitrary advantages. Yet some people in government seem obsessed with one tiny category: the occasional advantage that comes from being black. Many who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in 1964, including Ronald Reagan and George Bush, now posture as guardians at the portals of its "true meaning." Who among these "reverse discrimination" obsessives believes that when all the advantages and disadvantages in the game of life are weighed and balanced, the advantage -- even in 1991 -- goes to people of color?

Three years ago Reagan vetoed a bill authorizing broad federal civil rights enforcement at universities that accept federal funds. Congress overrode Reagan's veto. The Bush administration now tries to use this very law to restrict minority-targeted scholarships. Conservatives who condemned the bill as an unwarranted government intrusion into the private sphere seem to have forgotten their objection.

Bush is obviously sorry he stumbled into this thicket. He says the original decision to ban minority scholarships "was made without the knowledge of the White House." But he cannot blame a rogue assistant secretary of education for his sorrows. Michael Williams's ruling was the logical extension of everything Bush professes to believe about civil rights, in particular the principle that it must be "colorblind."

By contrast there is no coherent principle or logic in the policy the administration has settled on after a few mad days of backtracking. That policy holds that universities may not finance minority scholarships themselves, but may have minority-targeted scholarships financed by others.

Well, it's a distinction (as my old law professor used to say). But it hardly solves the moral puzzle of reverse discrimination. Bush says, "I've long been committed" to privately funded minority scholarships, as indeed he has. Yet how can scholarships based on race be morally repugnant when financed by universities but praiseworthy when financed by individuals?

Furthermore, the policy is not racially neutral, unless the administration is prepared to allow -- if not encourage -- whites-only scholarships at universities, provided they are financed by outsiders. I can't believe it is.

Even before the official backtrack, the policy was full of contradictions and violations of the alleged principle at stake. There is an exception for minority scholarships funded by the federal government itself. So, according to the Bush principles, it is the proper role of the federal government to 1) pay for minority scholarships itself, 2) ban minority scholarships paid for by universities and 3) encourage minority scholarships paid for by private individuals. Go figger. The revised version declares that the administration takes no position on minority scholarships funded by state and local governments. Probably a good thing.

Similarly, there is an exception for universities acting under a "court order to desegregate." Courts have used minority scholarships as a remedy in civil rights cases. And that's okay, apparently. Thus, according to the Bush interpretation, the same civil rights principles sometimes require you to create minority scholarships and sometimes forbid you to do the exact same thing.

The administration suggests that minority scholarships may be okay even without a court order to make up for past discrimination or simply to promote diversity. This is called reinventing the wheel. Universities don't create minority scholarships because they hate white people. They do it to promote diversity and make up for past discrimination. If those are good enough reasons to overcome the anathema on reverse discrimination, then the principle is an empty debating point.

Finally, according to the administration, there is nothing wrong with using race as "a factor" in awarding scholarships as long as it is not the "overriding" factor. This bit of sophistry derives from Justice Lewis Powell's opinion in the 1978 Bakke case. Yet a "factor" is only relevant if it is sometimes the determining factor. What is the moral difference between, say, reserving a tenth of your scholarships for blacks and using blackness as a "factor" that will make the difference 10 percent of the time? And this exception also is not "color-blind." The administration surely does not approve of using white skin as "a factor" in awarding scholarships. I hope.

So what's the moral? The moral, to me, is that in applying the principles of civil rights, there is no truly "colorblind" standard that any reasonable person, including George Bush, would actually be willing to enforce. It is possible to stir up white resentment against reverse discrimination. It is possible to recognize that reverse discrimination is dangerous medicine that should be used sparingly. It is not possible to get all self-righteous about "colorblindness" as an absolute principle and really mean it.