If you want to know how you really feel about racial quotas, ask yourself what advice you would give the Charlottesville, Va., housing authority.

Let's stipulate that you want what all the players in the little housing drama say they want for the city's low-income residents: safe, decent and affordable housing whose tenants generally reflect the community's racial makeup. How do you go about achieving it?

Your preference would be to accept tenants on a first-come first-served basis, letting the racial ratio work itself out. Blacks comprise about 18 percent of the Charlottesville population, and some 30 percent of those whose income is below federal poverty levels and who are thus eligible for public housing.

But you know from experience that first-come, first- served would result in segregated housing. To begin with, there is the longstanding tendency of Charlottesville residents to think of public housing as black housing. Second, black families on the waiting list outnumber white families by some two-and-a-half to one. Colorblind acceptance of applicants as their names reach the top of the list would leave the projects so heavily black that whites would stop applying.

Theoretically, that would be no problem. In practical terms, it would turn the housing development into exactly the sort of ghetto that you hope to avoid.

The route chosen by officials of Charlottesville and the Department of Housing and Urban Development was to set quotas for black occupancy: no less than 35 percent of the units and no more than 65 percent.

And the black community is outraged. Not only do whites have more opportunities for private-market housing than do blacks, they say, but it is unfair -- blatantly discriminatory, in fact -- for a black family to reach the top of the waiting list only to have the next available unit go to a white family further down the list.

What's the right thing to do? Local and federal officials are trying to negotiate some sort of compromise.

They might find it helpful to read Jefferson Morley's fascinating piece on Starrett City (Brooklyn) in the July 9, 1984, New Republic magazine. Morley highlights the whole range of paradoxes, conflicts and ironies surrounding the attempts of officials to keep that 15,000-person development -- the country's largest federally subsidized project for middle-income tenants -- from degenerating into a slum. One of the more interesting paradoxes is that the lawyer defending Starrett City's quota system against black allegations that the policy amounts to unlawful discrimination is Morris B. Abram, who, as a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, has made a major issue of his steadfast opposition to quotas.

But to nail Abram for outrageous inconsistency is not to resolve the dilemma. Hardly anyone would dispute the fact that first-come first-served would cause Starrett City to "tip." Not only would whites stop moving in, but those already in would start to move out, and the project -- deliberately established on the border between black and poor East New York and white working-class Canarsie -- would quickly become first black, then black slum.

On the other hand, to give preference to white applicants in order to avoid that eventuality -- "double reverse discrimination," Morley calls it -- is to penalize blacks, whose options are more limited than those of their white counterparts, for being black.

In Starrett City as in Charlottesville, the choices are between some degree of racial balance (achieved by discriminating against blacks) and a colorblind process that would shortly produce a subsidized black slum.