William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, is on the anti-quota stump again. He doesn't like racial quotas--finds them morally, legally and philosophically indefensible.

So do I.

Reynolds also thinks that there are important benefits to Americans generally that come from "attending a culturally diverse school and laboring in a multiracial work force." He believes racial inclusiveness is a worthwhile national goal.

So do I.

But I'm not as sure as Reynolds is that you can enjoy the delights of List B without taking at least a sampling from List A.

Maybe that is because we don't agree on how racial discrimination works in this country. Reynolds imagines that employers, preferring competency to racial compatibility, will, as a rule, simply select the best applicant for each vacancy. If an employer's actual selections are disproportionately white men, Reynolds would assume that it is because most of the qualified applicants are white men. He'd be willing to insist on better recruitment programs so that the applicant pool is more representative of the general society.

As for the occasional bigot who will insist on hiring white men even when women and nonwhites are more qualified, Reynolds would throw the full weight of the Justice Department behind a suit brought by a victim of such discrimination.

"The only sensible policy course," he said in a recent speech at Amherst College, "is to expand and reach out and include those minorities who were previously excluded, and then to judge all applicants on their individual merit, without discrimination.

"Every worker who was not hired or promoted because of race will be restored to his or her rightful place."

There are some jobs, some employers, and some circumstances under which such a policy might make a good deal of sense. But, as Reynolds ought to know, there are a great many more where it couldn't work at all.

The jobless rate for blacks, for instance, is roughly double that for whites. It seems reasonable to suppose that at least some of that continuing disparity must be due to factors other than measurable competency. But how many of those jobless blacks could prove to Reynolds' satisfaction just what their "rightful place" might be? How many people turned down for work they could perform would be able to tell the Civil Rights Division which white men were hired in their stead, let alone outline their comparative qualifications?

The truth is, the qualifications for most jobs in America, and the reasons why an employer likes one applicant more than another, are not that clear-cut. The unsuccessful applicant for a math professorship might be able to meet the Reynolds test. The unsuccessful applicant for a job in a factory or an insurance office probably could not.

But wouldn't Reynolds be concerned if a particular factory or office always had significantly fewer minorities or women than others in the same area and line of business? Wouldn't he be forced, by the sheer weight of common sense, to suspect that the employer who always seemed to have trouble finding qualified minorities might in fact be guilty of discrimination?

His predecessors in office have reached just that sort of conclusion, and they have enforced provisions of the law that-- particularly when those employers are doing work for the government--they must set and meet goals and timetables for minority hiring, whether their earlier hiring practices were the result of faulty technique or bigotry.

These goals and timetables strike me as a reasonable way of measuring whether an employer has ceased discriminating, and, in fact, the evidence is that they were working. Reynolds calls them "quotas," and says the hell with them.