A LOT OF heat and not too much light is being generated in this city on the subject of civil rights. Two months ago, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights issued a broad attack on the Justice Department's performance in enforcing civil rights guarantees. The indictment ended with the charge that department attorneys were no longer devoted to "fair-mindedness and fidelity to the law," but "to power and prejudice instead.'" Last week, the department responded with a 50-page, point-by-point attempt at refutation, charging the civil rights groups with trying to "manipulate emotions through selective citation of fact, mischaracterization and irresponsible rhetoric." On Monday, some members of the House Judiciary Committee accused Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds of "contributing to a climate of increased racism in this country." Does anyone think this kind of name-calling is helping to promote the cause of racial justice?

The civil rights people have some just and very serious complaints. The department's positions on tax exemptions for segregated schools and on the question of what proof should be required in voting discrimination cases deserved the battering they got. But disagreement on some specific policies should not foreclose discussion on others, and charges of bad faith on both sides stand to poison and prevent such discussion.

The basic sources of disagreement seem to concern two elements: remedies and attitudes. The Justice Department has said it will not ask courts to remedy school segregation by requiring busing or propose that employers be required to meet specific numerical goals for the hiring of women and minorities. It pledges enforcement of the law, but says that neither of these methods is either "required as a matter of law (or) wise as a matter of policy."

The other, less ambitious approaches suggested by Justice Department officials instead may very well not work. But it is unlikely that anyone will succeed in persuading them of this point. So it may be more useful for civil rights leaders to shift gears and spend their energies arguing these issues in the courts. The Justice Department will continue to propose one set of remedies, and civil rights groups to propose others that are stronger and that involve busing and affirmative action. The courts, in the end, will decide what is constitutionally necessary.

The other underlying cause of friction is more subtle. Over the past 25 years, minorities in America have come to view the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department as their prime advocate inside the government. This reputation was, until now, well deserved. The assistant attorney general in charge of the division has, in fact, been the chief enforcer of the civil rights laws, and has traditionally been a supporter of the same policies and legislation as the Leadership Conference. But Mr. Reynolds has, for some time, been in a defensive stance, explaining at length what he thought the government should not do rather than bringing attention to the problems that exist and presenting an imaginative agenda for addressing them.

Can these people work together anymore? Setting aside the explosive issues of busing and job quotas, couldn't they make common cause against housing discrimination, voting rights infringement and a host of other problems? Why not agree to disagree in some areas but move forward together wherever possible? Mr. Reynolds professes, in his April 3 statement, to be committed to the "vigorous and evenhanded enforcement of the Constitution and the laws of the United States." He lists with pride the cases in litigation and the investigations undertaken by his division in the last year. Surely there's plenty of room for cooperation and progress. A little more civility all around might make it possible.