"I have not yet had occasion to call the Reagan administration racist," said the NAACP's Benjamin Hooks. "But this latest series of retreats puts them mighty close."

Very close indeed. Hooks was reacting to the adminstration's breathtaking decision to subsidize, out of taxpayers' money, the "seg academies" that sprang up in many parts of the South in reaction to the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation ruling. The administration action, which Reagan modified after a barrage of criticism, remains racist in effect. And Hooks' tactful language notwithstanding, some of us suspected it to be racist in purpose.

That is not to say that Ronald Reagan is a racist. But it is to say that his commitment to the non-racist policies of his predecessors is so weak that he feels free to abandon it under pressure from his fellow conservatives whose racism is not in doubt.

Hooks' alarm was shared, of course, by the rest of the civil rights establishment, but also by congressional liberals and moderates and, quietly but effectively, by the handful of highly placed blacks in the administration. They wanted to know why the president had resorted to what seemed a gratuitous insult.

They knew the official explanation: The administration doesn't favor segregation; it only wants to abandon the rule that denied tax exemption to segregated schools because the rule gave too much power to the Internal Revenue Service.

It is an excruciatingly thin veil for perhaps the most aggressively racist act of the Reagan administration--thinner even than the explanation for abandoning affirmative action, or for cutting to the bone the social welfare and job-training programs enacted to help the neediest Americans, disproportionately black and brown.

In the case of affirmative action, Reagan's attorney general argued against "quotas or any other numerical statistical formulae" for increasing employment opportunities for blacks. But he at least acknowledged that employment discrimination is a serious problem, "so serious as to make other civil rights largely academic." His abandonment of affirmative action, in other words, was the abandonment of a particular method (however misguided he may have been) and not of the principle of nondiscrimination.

The administration's wholesale cuts in social programs were predicated upon the notion that it was at once too costly and too ineffectual to continue doing things the old way. But at least Reagan came out in favor of help for the neediest (though his preference was for private help) and for jobs for all who wanted to work. In both cases, the administration view was that we were together on principle, if not on tactics.

But in the case of the decision conferring tax subsidies on segregated schools, intent and impact are inseparable. It simply is not arguable that the repudiation of 12 years of denying tax subsidies to segregated schools would increase the amount of segregated schooling. Clearly it would: in the 100 private schools that had been denied charitable status because of their segregationist policies; in the unknown number of segregated schools that, knowing what the federal policy was, had never applied for exemption, and in the new "academies" that undoubtedly would spring into existence as a result of the policy that Reagan, reluctantly, has modified.

The administration argues that allowing the IRS to deny exemptions to segregated schools in effect allows it to make law, a function that belongs in Congress. The argument ignores the fact that a federal appeals court already has supported the long-standing IRS policy, holding that it is unlawful to grant tax exemption to private schools that discriminate on the basis of race.

Reagan says now that he will send up legislation which, if enacted, would make a nullity of the whole affair. Congress would do, at Reagan's urging, what the IRS has been doing for a dozen years --although in the interim, the tax exemptions for segregated schools will be in effect.

The whole episode defies rational explanation. Can the president really believe that means are so important that ends don't matter? Even if he wanted to change the means--substituting congressional action for IRS fiat--does it make sense that he would wipe out the one before the other is in place? Does anyone suppose that, absent the furor which, incredibly, he seems not to have anticipated, he would have sent an anti-segregation bill to Congress?

The impression here is that Reagan is not a racist in the manner of some of his anti-black, segregationist, turn-back-the-clock supporters, but that he simply doesn't give much of a damn one way or the other. In practical effect, it amounts to the same thing.