CONFESSING a naivete in politics, a black second-tier federal aide backed partly away from a policy he recently announced banning scholarships designated for minority students. So saying, Michael L. Williams released a statement that effectively tried to keep the ban but soften the language.
President George Bush, surprised and clearly embarrassed by the fallout from the Dec. 4 announcement, said he had ''long been committed'' to minority scholarships, was happy with Mr. Williams' new announcement and would ''like to think that the matter can be resolved with finality this way.''
Let's count two kinds of naivete here. No, three.
Type 1 naivete is observed in Mr. Williams, who thought his president's marching orders were pretty clear after Mr. Bush's continued hostility to affirmative action in practice, his continued support of Ronald Reagan's anti-civil rights campaign and his veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1990 on the spurious claim that a bill that expressly disavowed quotas was a quota bill.
Type 2 was also exhibited by Mr. Williams when he expected that charging in on the wrong side of a high-stakes argument -- whether racism in Arizona can be mitigated by palliatives offered by sports impressarios -- would not bring a ''firestorm'' of criticism.
Type 3 naivete, the most dangerous kind, was demonstrated by Mr. Bush, who thinks policies that are inherently discriminatory, blatantly disenfranchising and appallingly mean-spirited will be seen as anything other than pandering to the racists in our midst.
Let's take it from the top.
Many white Americans deplored the bigotry of the Willie Horton campaign of 1988, but a bigger group endorsed it at the polls. So-called moderates, who wanted an end to the stridency of the Reagan years but still supported curbs on social programs, thought Mr. Bush's ''kinder and gentler'' rhetoric would suffice. So-called Reagan Democrats, whites who felt threatened by minority advances, signed on, too. And the rhinoceros right, which didn't care whether the rhetoric got gentler or not, gave the counter-sign to the code words it heard.
Fueling their sense of righteous triumph is the backward logic that minorities have gotten ''enough,'' and that they've tried to ''move too far, too fast'' from the bad old days of racial disenfranchisement. Redress of the distress caused by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson separate-but-equal decision and Woodrow Wilson's imposition of segregation in federal policy, in this view, has actually gone too far.
Thus, the belief has spread that colleges are somehow discriminating against white applicants in favor of less-deserving blacks, Hispanics, Asians.
Thus, the anger now spilling over on campuses across the nation.
Thus, the attacks on minorities and the racist language in campus publications.
The reality is something different, but reality never matters when prejudice runs the show. A joint commission of the American Council on Education and the Education Commission of the States noted in the report, ''One-Third of a Nation,'' that minority participation in higher education was going down, not up, in 1987, well before Mr. Williams' gratuitous policy shift.
In the National Urban League's 1989 ''State of Black America'' report, Reginald Wilson showed that between 1976 and 1986, black 18-to-24-year-olds boosted their high-school completion rate more than any other racial or ethnic group, but their college-going rate fell as other groups' rates climbed.
These are not the under-prepared, poor performers imagined by so many whites. Mr. Wilson noted that on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, American College Test and National Assessments Educational Progress, 1988's cohort showed itself the largest and best-prepared group of black high-school graduates in history. But while the 1976 cohort's 33.4-percent college-enrollment rate exceeded white classmates' 33.1 percent, 1986's black class could only muster a 28.6-percent college-enrollment rate, to whites' 34.1 percent.
National Center of Education Statistics figures say that while blacks were 9.4 percent of the college students in 1976, 10 years later they were 8.7 percent. The ''State of Black America'' noted that this was 15,000 fewer blacks on campus.
The reason, as Lincoln University President Niara Sudarkasa explained in 1988 Urban League report, is that while almost half of all black students come from families with incomes under $12,000 a year, real dollars available through financial aid have declined. Shifts of federal grant moneys to loan programs, changes in eligibility to accommodate middle-class whites and attacks on targeted social programs have eroded the blacks' ability to raise the money for college. And college costs keep going up.
And now Mr. Bush's Education Department, spearheaded by a wrong-headed black appointee, would like to eliminate the scholarships that extend a lifeline to those blacks who choose to buck the obstacles. Any surprise here that a ''firestorm'' descended? Stay tuned.