Back in 1970, a federal interagency task force sat down to evaluate the use of racial and ethnic data collected on applicants for, and recipients of, federally assisted programs. The task force, composed of representatives from all the federal departments and agencies providing public aid, concluded that collecting this data was the most effective way to guard against discrimination.

Now, though, the Reagan administration has decided to terminate the use of racial and ethnic data in assistance programs operated by the Veterans Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Other agencies and programs are likely to be similarly threatened. In a long line of actions to undermine civil rights enforcement, the administration's decision may seem minor. But it is not.

As the task force pointed out, after-the- fact enforcement could only deal with a few cases and would be costly and difficult to carry out successfully. But regular collection of data on the status of minorities provides continuous monitoring that both discourages illegal discrimination and supplies a readily available source of information that makes it easier to identify and prove the existence of bias. Instead of having to prove intent, a complainant can rely on observable facts.

The fact that most of the minority community supported this policy was significant. In prior years, government officials' efforts to obtain racial data had been opposed, because racial identification was associated with government-sponsored discrimination in such areas as voting rights. But these objections were overcome by including safeguards in the data collection systems (such as the use of separately mailed in-forms) that provided assurance tht the information would be used only to check on government compliance with equitable access and service requirements.

The Reagan administration's new policy to terminate a now widely accepted system to monitor the fairness of government-assistance activities will return us to the discredited hit-and-miss approach of dealing with cases individually, after the fact, and on the basis of proving elusive intent.

Among the reasons that have been cited for the new policy is the need to reduce paper work and increased minority participation in federally assisted programs. But these arguments overlook the fact that minority data collection has made possible the continuous monitoring of civil rights compliance and has helped produce the gains we have witnessed since 1970. In a day when we place considerable stock in the access to information and gather extensive data in order to make decisions, it is very telling that administration officials have chosen to eliminate this aspect of civil-rightcompliance. If it is successful, we will be denied the most efficient and effective method for making sure the government complies with U.S. civil rights laws.

A return to the ostrich-like approach of keeping racial identification under wraps can only weaken our civil rights protections. Knowing who is and who is not being served by federally assisted programs is the support column for the government's civil rights enforcement structure. Eliminate it and we have lost the framework that keeps the structure whole and effective.