WASHINGTON — Washington.--AFTER EIGHT dreadful, crippling years of the Reagan presidency, most black and other minority Americans thought the Bush administration would bring a fresh breeze of fairness. We are dismayed to see it instead fast becoming the worst since Woodrow Wilson sanctioned the segregation of the federal government and in 1914 told a delegation of black men that ''Segregation is not humiliating but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.''
George Bush a worse civil-rights president than Ronald Reagan? Yes, because Mr. Reagan made bigotry fashionable mostly out of naivete. He said he didn't know racial discrimination still existed in this country. But the Bush people are dredging the sewers of ethnic and class politics and racial polarization with cruel and knowing calculation.
It was clear to me that the ''white backlash'' element of the 1992 presidential campaign was already in full blossom when the Department of Education declared it illegal for colleges to set up scholarship programs specifically designed to help blacks or members of any race that historically has been abused.
I am personally galled because I worked like hell with Lyndon B. Johnson and Hubert H. Humphrey to secure passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was a triumph of American decency. It halted generations of injustice, insults, humiliations against racial minorities at lunch counters, in theaters, on buses and trains, and in the delivery of education. How dare the Bush people turn that law upside down and use it as a weapon against youngsters to whom colleges are giving the breaks they need so desperately?
On one day I see a painful headline saying ''Half of Black Children Live in Poverty.'' Then I see stories about a Bush bureaucrat arrogantly declaring it unlawful for colleges to adopt race-conscious programs to draw blacks into higher education on their campuses. This is pandering to the paranoia, and, yes, the bigotry, of whites who believe that government, colleges, businesses and other institutions are ''showing favoritism'' to non-whites.
This absurdity is intensified by people whose minds are scrambled by propaganda about ''quotas,'' people who have gained wealth and power through three centuries of racial discrimination and now want to protect their preferred positions by demanding ''color-blind'' laws and regulations.
We finally have businessmen working to establish programs to ensure that all black children can read at an early age. This is in the national interest. It does not rob a single white child. American universities have myriad scholarships for which white youngsters qualify. What they don't have are enough minority students to provide the diversity that makes for a good educational experience for all students. What they have been doing is excluding minority youngsters whose higher education can help make America competitive. If Florida Atlantic University wants to help long-cheated blacks by giving them scholarships, it ought to be able to do so without harassment by George Bush's political hustlers.
I fear, though, that demagoguery against ''racial quotas'' and blatant efforts to profit from racial fears and jealousies will become more and more the hallmark of Mr. Bush's Republican Party as the 1992 elections come more into the spotlight.