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New ground was broken in American race relations last week. The University of California, a state institution, accepted a scholarship bequest marked whites-only.

Two years ago, Margaret F. Hornebeck left about $500,000 to the University of California at Berkeley, specifying that beneficiaries must be "very poor American Caucasian acedemic scholars."She left no explanation why the funds should be so restricted. Nonetheless, the university's 18 regents voted unanimously to accept the bequest. One regent said the donor seemed "well-intentioned."

I decode this to mean that Hornbeck's letter to the university granting the bequest was devoid of any rantings about race. In fact, it mentions race not at all, except, of course, for the one crucial reference to Caucasianness.

But how well-intentioned can any gift be if it explicitly intends to exclude people of color? The plain fact is that the bequest was racist and a public institution should not be party to such a bequest.

All public giving that involves racial or ethnic preference presents a problem. When the Education Department tried two years ago to stop federally supported colleges from accepting black-only scholarships, there was a firestorm of protest and the administration capitulated.

Bequests directed at black students have a laudable objective - to make up for past discrimination and encourage minorities to pursue higher education.

But even good motives do not justify discrimination on the basis of race. Blacks who are needy would surely qualify for financial aid on grounds of need. And blacks who are not needy do not, by definition, need financial aid. Why give it to them purely on grounds of race when the money could go to others, of whatever race, who do need it?

And what about the precedent? Once race becomes the criterion of entitlement, we enter treacherous moral ground. Once you sanction racial preferences, where does it stop? If you accept a gift marked "blacks-only," why not "whites-only"?

Now we know. In California, at least, whites-only is fine too. The perversion of civil rights has come to this. It should come as no surprise.

Martin Luther King made color-blindness the moral underpinning of the civil rights movement. But now that color-blindness has given way to the color-consciousness of affirmative action, there is no principled way to oppose the kind of racist preference mandated in the Hornbeck case.

Years ago, the university accepted racially discriminatory funds , no questions asked. Then came the civil rights revolution of 1964. The university decided to continue to administer old racist bequests, but to "discourage any further such gifts."

Five years later, the regents decided to ignore all racial (and religious and national origin) restrictions in old gifts and to refuse new gifts with such restrictions.

The next eight years proved to be the high water mark of color-blindness. In 1972, for example, the regents actually turned down participation in a $10 million grant offered by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to support "needy medical students who are female, are members of designated racial minority groups, and/or from rural areas."

How quaint. By 1977, the new spirit of affirmative action had made such racial scrupulousness obsolete. In March 1977, the university, "noting a shift in higher education from nondiscrimination to affirmative action," voted to follow the zeitgeist and allow racially restrictive giving as long as it could find other unrestricted funds in the university that would balance out the restricted funds.

Now 15 years later, the policy of countenanceing racial preferences reaches its logical conclusion. Racial preferences are now so commonplace, racial balkanization so routine, that a public university votes unanimously to accept a bequest that explicitly excludes blacks, Asians and other people of color.

It is appropriate that this breakthrough should occur in 1992, the year in which the racial gerrymandering of congressional districts marks the full triumph of the new race-conscious dispensation.

Throughout the country, geographically absurd districts have been carved to produce what Jimmy Carter once called "ethnic purity." The goal is, of course, to send more blacks and Hispanics to the next Congress. But the unintended consequence is clear: Segregating blacks in one district inevitably segregates whites into surrounding districts.

This alternate whitening and blackening makes obsolete the cross-racial political appeal that should be the mark of common citizenship in a multiracial society.

What makes this policy so tragic is that the world has long looked to us as the most successful multiracial, multiethnic society on the globe.

Rather than continue the pursuit of the traditional American ideal of common citizenship, we are sliding back to the kind of group rights that has been tried everywhere from Beirut to Belgrade, with consequences too sorrowful to recount.