Harvard University President Derek Bok has written a thoughtful piece ("Goals Aren't Quotas," op-ed, Feb. 25) on affirmative action programs that prefer members of one race over others not of that race -- misinformed, but thoughtful.

He concedes -- as candor requires -- "the subtle preferences implicit in the use of goals." And he gives to Glenn Loury, as he must, the argument that use of goals "stigmatizes those it purports to aid and undermines their self-respect. . . ." He acknowledges the harsh truth that black employment has tumbled steadily through the 1970s and '80s -- a phenomenon that, by no small coincidence, coincides with the increasing practice of white employers to regard the government goals as "ceilings," not "floors," and simply hire to the artificial numbers set for minorities. And he cannot ignore the study reported in the same Post edition showing that federal affirmative action programs have had no significant impact on closing the wage gap between black and white males.

Yet Bok insists we should stick with such a bankrupt program -- notwithstanding its debilitating impact on minorities' job opportunities, human dignity and feelings of self-worth and its discriminatory impact on others in reverse -- for a while longer (racial preferences that are "benign" are always billed as only temporary).

He offers for support a Department of Labor study (the "Leonard Study") which purportedly shows that "firms subject to affirmative action have increased their minority employees more rapidly than firms outside the government programs."

Not so! What the Leonard Study shows is an increase in the percentage of minority employees (15.8 percent to 19 percent) in firms under the regime of mandatory government goals between 1974 and 1980. But firms not in the Labor Department program of goals-and-timetables showed a similar increase over the same period (17.9 percent to 20.6 percent) and, indeed, showed a greater representation of minorities at both the beginning and the end of the survey period than did the firms using government goals.

Moreover, if we look more carefully at the Leonard Study, it demonstrates that the private-sector employment activity (outside of government programs) has generated a greater increase in the actual number of minority persons employed (28.95 percent) than did contractors in government programs (22.14 percent).

The fact is that the experiment over the past decade with the use of race to determine who should enter and advance through the work force has for too long disserved minorities and nonminorities alike. Any policy that focuses, either as a starting or ending point, on skin color, sex, religion or the national background of an employee or potential employee is discriminatory. In this country's multiracial, multiethnic and multireligious society, no legitimate interest of any group is served by assigning to it an allocated share of the market place aimed at achieving some multifaceted balance based on wholly irrelevant criteria.

If we are against discrimination, let's stand against it unambiguously. Bok's suggestion -- that such wholesale rejection is too large a dose to swallow -- has the inevitable effect of requiring us to continue emphasizing (even if subtly) a person's skin color, gender, religion and national origin as his or her badge of dishonor. There are no winners in such a statistical game, only losers.

America's greatness lies in its insistence on guaranteeing to every individual who comes to its shores the opportunity to compete on equal terms with all others based on individual talent and worth -- and to do so with human dignity. Uncompromising adherence to the principle of nondiscrimination is the best protection of that promise.