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THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION'S preliminary decision to threaten a cutoff of federal aid to colleges that offer minority scholarships is shocking both in its reading of the law and in its implications. It is alarming that an official in the administration would take the initiative in undermining a recognized tool for social progress.

The quick negative reaction, which has left the White House scrambling for damage control, should have been easy to anticipate.

The move putting more distance between the administration and minorities came in the wake of Bush's veto of important civil rights legislation. It also came when memories were fresh of the widely marked re-election of North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms in a bitter contest in which he made race the key issue.

Both the fight over the 1990 Civil Rights Act and the Helms contest turned on the bogus issue of "quotas." The administration emphatically should not turn to that mean-sprited strategy to shore up white support as the 1992 elections near. But the attack on minority scholarships did nothing to ease fears that this is what may be happening.

Bush's Education Department issued the aid threat in a letter to organizers of the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. Rocked by reaction to that state's defeat of a proposal to create a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., bowl sponsors had planned a scholarship fund in King's name to help students at the participating schools.

But Michael L. Williams, the Education Department's assistant secretary for civil rights, warned that any schools with such
"race exclusive" scholarships violate civil rights law and risk losing all federal aid. Williams read the U.S. Supreme Court's 1978 Bakke decision and a 1976 federal court ruling as prohibiting scholarships aimed at aiding specific racial groups.

No one else in the past decade and a half has applied such an interpretation. Why did the Bush administration suddenly take it upon itself to do so? At best the move reflects a misguided vision of a "colorblind" society in which those still suffering the residual effects of discrimination need no concerted help to climb onto a level playing field.

It is ironic that the department's action came in the wake of its approval of Harvard University's practice of giving preference to the offspring of alumni and to athletes, a practice that led to whites being admitted at significantly higher rates than similarly qualified Asian-Americans.

The scholarship ruling would not affect aid based on financial need, which often goes to minorities, or that offered by private organizations.

Still, it is an unwise effort to undercut legitimate attempts to help minorities enter the mainstream.

The department's ruling is now being reviewed by the White House and should be reversed. If there are constitutional questions about such aid, they should be answered in the Supreme Court based on a challenge by opponents. It is appalling to think that the administration would go out of its way to make a pre-emptive strike on such worthy programs.

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