I had barely collected my lunch from the options at the salad bar, when the two women at the next table began their dissection of The Miss America Pageant. The young critics proclaimed one finalist too thin, another too plastic, a third devoid of talent. A fourth, they declared, had bodily parts of suspicious origin.

When the subject turned toward the winner, Miss New York, now Miss America, both the women agreed matter-of-factly and without rancor, "she only won because she was black." Did it matter that the first runner-up was Miss New Jersey, also black? That just proved that this was "the year for a black winner."

At that point I was struck by a perverse desire to drop my marinated zucchini in their clam chowder and watch it curdle. But maybe apoplexy is the proper punishment for eavesdropping.

The history of the pageant is not, after all, a very open-minded one. For about 30 of the 62 years of Miss Americas, blacks were excluded from the competition. It's only since 1970 that any black woman has made it to Atlantic City. Only two have ever before been finalists.

Now along comes Vanessa Williams of Millwood, N.Y., who wins the crown and what happens? Within days, we pass out of the era when a black woman couldn't win because she was black and into the era when she only won because she was black.

I don't want to make a class action out of a lunchtime conversation by two white women. But it seems to me that along with the genuine congratulations for this poised and confident new Miss, there is an edge of protestation.

More than one judge felt compelled to tell the press, "I can assure you that this young lady got there on her merits." Vanessa Williams herself responded to the questions about her historical role by saying, "I was chosen because I was qualified for the position. The fact that I was black was not a factor." They were aware of the attitudes of my next-table lunchers.

Never mind, for the moment, the peculiar items that make anyone "qualified" to be Miss America. The subject is prejudice. It seems that the people who suffered most from prejudice against them are most likely to be accused of prejudice in favor of them when, at last, there's some change.,

This isn't peculiar to Atlantic City. We've seen it happen everywhere There is the lily- white firm that finally admits a black partner. He is then immediately suspected of having been hired for color.

There is the bank or corporation that finally elevates a woman to director. She would never, it is then rumored, have gotten the promotion if she weren't female.

Then there is the TV station that finally appoints a Hispanic to an anchor slot. She wouldn't be able to hang onto her seat, say the gossipers, if she weren't Hispanic.

These newcomers are often labeled tokens, symbols--anything short of legitimate titleholders. It isn't that there aren't incompetents in every job category, but people rarely say that a colleague never would have gotten the job if he weren't white.

Part of it is the sore-thumb theory. The "different" people are watched and graded according to entirely different standards. They are compared to the ideal standard rather than to the mean.

Few jobs and titles--short of sports championships--are based on purely objective criteria that separate the winner from the losers beyond question. Professors, senior executives and senators as well as beauty queens are all judged on subjective qualifications.

One of those subjective judgments is prejudice. Those who don't believe that "they" are smart or beautiful enough to get the title will be hard-pressed to believe that "they" got the job through smarts or beauty.

This is the Affirmative Action Conundrum. Without affirmative action, certain companies and unions would never have hired or promoted minorities and women. With affirmative action, they may be hired but are often tainted.

Given that choice, most of us would take the job and run with it. The only solution is time and numbers. With her crown, her $25,000 scholarship and her expected $100,000 from promotion trips, Vanessa Williams doesn't have to fret a whole lot about the gossip at lunch.

But there is still a lingering pattern of updated, upscale, almost respectable prejudice. It travels along, like a shadow of a crown.