JIMMY CARTER was wrong to introduce the where-were-you-16-years-ago test of civil rights ardor into the campaign for two reasons. One is that none of the three principal candidates, himself included, comes off very well when you inspect his early-1960s civil-rights history. The other is that there is a whole new and different range of things to be done now, and what voters should be considering is how good the candidates are at recognizing them.

We do not mean to suggest that all the work has been done in dismantling the institutional structure: of vicious racial discrimination that existed in so many arenas of American public life for so long or that Mr. Carter's own record number of appointments of blacks and other minorities to high positions is just a civil-rights ho-hum. Those appointments were important, and there is still work to be done to fulfill and ensure fundamental constitutional rights for blacks. But there is no quarrel among the candidates on the rightness of the pursuit of racial justice. The more pressing questions concern true emancipation. How shall American blacks -- not just a few, but as a group -- be provided a fair chance to compete, to excel, to live fully and independently and securely in the society?

Two answers, associated broadly with right and left, are frequently offered -- in all their wrongheaded, simplistic beauty. One is the sink-or-swim, toss-em-off-the-wharf-and-see-what-happens school of social thought, which is in itself cynical, when it is not being just plain dumb. It ignores the fact that the American past has helped to create a largely impoverished social class and to lock it into certain fixed locations and circumstances, that it has contributed mightily to the disabling of innumerable individuals and families and that it is grotesque to say to these particular people now: "Guess what? We've changed our minds. Go out and get a job as a stock broker." The society, its public and private institutions and its government, all of which tolerated the old discriminatory racial order and some of which profited from it, owe the victims much more in the way of encouragement, assistance, pressure for change and creation of conditions in which they have a practical chance, not just a theoretical right, to prosper.

The question is how this obligation shall be met, and it is here that the other failed prescription comes into play. For just as rugged individualists on the right seem always to be heartily and emptily inviting poor blacks to step right up and achieve things that have been put out of their reach, so from the other side comes a kind of condescending coo, white liberal-left solicitude that often seems to rest on the truly racist premise that doing right by black people means perpetuating and making amenable a condition of dependency for them verging on servitude.

It is one thing, for example, to favor selective and careful use of the affirmative action principle to overcome the specific effects of past injustices in certain fields. But it is quite another to propound and fight for an unfettered and infinitely expanding right, even "duty"," of governmnent to assign people to what it regards as their fitting places in various institutions all across the society on the basis of their race. Leave aside for the moment the predictable unfairnesses and resentments among groups that this must generate and its thinness and artificiality as a basis for long-term social policy. Placement somewhere, courtesy of some government authority or other, on basis of one's race is not liberation. It can be an insidious form of dependency.

So too, while it is one thing to believe in the urgency of well-funded and generous social programs to help the country's left-behind poor, it is quite another to argue for expansion of such programs in themselves as the appropriate response to the claims of poor, black people on the rest of society. Too many self-professed friends of black America have adopted this mindless, patronizing and fundamentally hurtful attitude, betraying, in their endless attentions to the size of the welfare pot and nothing else, their assumption that welfare dependency is the destiny of a population they insult even as they ooze "concern."

To their credit, neither of the candidates who stand a chance of wining the election is nearly as bad as the other says he is on these questions. Mr. Reagan seems to us to have shown a deficiency of both sympathy and imagination in grasping the importance of some of those social welfare efforts that his opposition, admittedly, sets too much store by. But both he and his party have come a decisive distance from the old sink-or-swim school, never mind what the president says. And the president -- disregard Mr. Reagan -- is no proponent of wall-to-wall quotas an eternal welfare dependency, nor is he the welfare-program killer some of his liberal critics proclaim. Neither man in truth has been especially interesting or even perceptive about the place where the efforts of the past two decades have brought us in terms of new and more complicated obligations to fulfill racial rights among many competing groups. But both have declared an awareness that jobs are central to the government's racial obligations now, and that general questions of the economy may be the crucial ones when you are talking about how America treats its black citizens.

These are the racially connected issues on which the candidates need to be judged. The question for voters is not which of the candidates had the requisite version in the early 1960s -- the answer is none -- but rather which now better understands what is required to emancipate black America in the 1960s.