"Racism" is a charge that is used so offhandedly that it has lost much of its impact.

Yet it's hard to think of another way of describing America's treatment of the Haitian refugees. Judge Robert Carter, of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan, came close to calling it by the right name when he ruled last Friday in favor of eight Haitian "boat

people" who had been refused parole by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service's New York office.

"The parole results during (Charles) Sava's tenure since July 1981 as New York district director (of the immigration service) demonstrate a gross maldistribution of releases," the judge said.

"Of 86 Haitians whose applications he received, Sava paroled five, all pregnant women. Of 91 non-Haitian applications, 90 were released." That record, said Carter, shows "invidious racial- or national-origin-based discrimination."

Jesse Jackson, who in the last two weeks has discussed the problem with the pope, with the U.S. Catholic Conference and with the State Department, says it more plainly:

"It's racism. You look at the combination of concentration camps for Haitians and the overt cozying up to South Africa, and the official pattern becomes clear."

John McCarthy, executive director of the Catholic Conference's migration and refugee service, sees the scandalous treatment of the Haitian refugees as "a terrible disaster, a scar on our nation--the first time this sort of thing has happened since the start of World War II, when we did it to the Japanese."

What McCarthy and the others are talking about is the incarceration--in jails, in prisons and in squalid camps-- of some 2,000 Haitian refugees, most of them claiming to be political refugees, a status which would lead to their asylum here. The official U.S. line is that they are economic refugees and not entitled to asylum.

"It's a distinction without a difference, in substance or in history," Jackson contends. "The Poles are economic refugees. Solidarity is a labor union. Nowhere have the Poles said that they wish to change their form of government. They remain communists. Yet we classify them as political refugees and let them in."

McCarthy makes a similar point. "It's very difficult to buy this economic-political distinction," he said. "These (Haitians) are desperately poor people with no rights whatever. And there really aren't that many of them. Only 50 came in during January. Perhaps as many as 50,000 Mexicans cross the border every day. How many of them are in jail?"

The official explanation is that the Mexicans who come here illegally are caught only after they have gotten in and taken jobs, and that they rarely resist deportation (though many of them quickly return). The Haitians, on the other hand, are intercepted at the border, and, instead of returning voluntarily, claim refugee status.

McCarthy has heard the arguments, and he dismisses them--on economic as well as racial grounds.

"We believe the idea of keeping these refugees in hard-rock prisons is morally wrong. These are lovely people, posing no (crime) problem at all. And it costs a lot of money--maybe $2 million a month--to keep them locked up. That's my money they're throwing away, and yet the administration keeps saying we have to reduce federal expenditures."

McCarthy says he has proposed to take custody of the locked-up Haitians and let the savings go toward developing jobs in Haiti, thereby reducing the incentive for the life-risking boat rides to America. "We aren't new at this," he said. " We have handled a million displacees--10,000 Southeast Asians in September alone. We have offered, in writing, to take these refugees and find them homes and jobs at no cost to the government. The government says it has a problem, and we offer a solution. We'll take them off their hands."

It sounds like an offer no penny- pinching government could refuse. But McCarthy says the only response he has had was from an immigration official who said it was necessary to continue the present policy "as a deterrent."

"In a different context, you might say Gethsemane was a deterrent," McCarthy said. "What they are doing is just morally offensive. I can't tell you why they are doing it. But I don't see any white faces among the detainees."