ONCE UPON A TIME, being a minority in America was a disadvantage. Today it is a privilege, especially if the minority is savvy.

The U.S. government has made it that way by conferring advantages based on race and gender. Many of these advantages are financial, and some, worth millions of dollars, come directly out of the pockets of taxpayers.The largest group of these taxpayers consists of white males, who are denied, by reason of race and gender, the subsidies and opportunities.

Few Americans have any comprehension of how much it can pay to be black these days.

Consider, for example, the multibillion-dollar sale by Viacom Inc. of its cable television systems. Because Viacom agreed to sell to a "minority-led investor group," it is permitted to defer taxes indefinitely on more than $1 billion in capital gains. Congress' Joint Committee on Taxation estimates the value of the tax break to Viacom to be somewhere between $440 million and $640 million.

Although the tax deferral goes to Viacom and not to the minority-led buyers, it is supposed to directly benefit the latter. For example, since Viacom is going to pick up $400 million or more in taxpayers' money in addition to the sales price, Viacom could afford to sell to the minority-led buyers at below the market price of the cable companies.

If Viacom sold at $200 million below market, the total compensation that Viacom would receive (sales price plus tax deferral) would still total at least $200 million above the market price.

The advantage to the minority-led buyers is that the lower sales price makes it easier to buy the company, and once it is bought, the buyers are handed a $200 million increase in their personal wealth (the difference between what they paid and the market price).

If white males tried to purchase the cable systems from Viacom, they would have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars above the market price in order to offset the advantage to Viacom of the tax deferral.

The federal government's policy of handing out hundreds of millions of dollars on the basis of skin color constitutes a privilege that makes no sense - especially when, as in this case, the black beneficiary already is rich.

Frank Washington, the black attorney who heads the partnership that is buying the cable systems, already has benefited from four other deals that were aided and abetted by tax deferrals. Washington does not lack for smarts. In 1978, when he was an official in the Carter administration, he helped put in place the tax deferral program that now benefits him.

There is speculation in Congress that Washington is only a frontman for the settlement at taxpayers' expense of an antitrust suit filed against Tele-Communications Inc. by Viacom. It appears the money for the Viacom purchase is coming from TCI, not from Washington, and that TCI is taking advantage of the tax break as a way of settling the antitrust suit by overpaying Viacom for its cable companies. Viacom has agreed to drop the antitrust suit if the sale with the tax break goes through.

If this speculation is on the mark, then in this case the tax break would not be used to enrich minorities, but to settle a private lawsuit at taxpayers' expense.