THE Supreme Court case on funding for Mississippi black colleges, to be argued Nov. 13, offers a window on the Bush administration's ambivalence over race policy and group rights.Although none of Mississippi's five historically white state colleges or three historically black state colleges have been officially segregated since 1962, they remain largely separated by race. They also remain unequal. The black schools have less and spend less per pupil than their mostly white counterparts. A group of black Mississippians filed a class action suit in 1975 to win more state money for the historically black colleges on the grounds of racial equity. Until mid-September, the Bush administration argued against raising the level of spending in the black colleges. Arguing for a colorblind ideal of social integration, they stressed the importance of one state college system open to all races. "The ideal is to end duplication [of separate systems by race], not to perfect it by ensuring that separate schools are in fact equal," argued the United States Solicitor General in his brief to the court. But in September, President Bush was personally entreated by officials representing historically black colleges around the country to reverse course. They argued that the Mississippi case was critical to the future of the nation's 47 state-supported black colleges, a cause the President has endorsed since his undergraduate days at Yale. So on Mr. Bush's orders, the administration has reversed itself, submitted a new brief to the court, arguing for equal funding for historically black colleges. To some close observers of race policy, from both the left and the right, the White House reversal on this case is emblematic of the conflicting directions in the Bush administration. A similar reversal occurred late last year when a US Department of Education Department official announced that college scholarships earmarked for students by race violated federal law. The White House, apparently, heard the announcement only after it was made - and reversed it. A more ambiguous episode is the compromise civil-rights bill just arriving on the president's desk for signature. Bush stood firm against earlier bills based on his charge that they would enforce businesses to hire by quota. The new bill that he supports is not a quota bill, he insists. But many legal experts view this as a change of political position that is not reflected in the substance of the bill - whether they agree that any version would force hiring quotas or not. "If you're looking for an overarching principle that informs all these positions, there isn't one," says Alan Slobodin, president of the legal studies division of the conservative Washington Legal Foundation. "There's a real tension in this society between the ideal of a truly colorblind society and the desire to really do something to close the gap in social and economic achievement between the races," Mr. Slobodin explains. "The administration is a microcosm of the society as a whole on that." From a more liberal vantage point, Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman is less charitable about White House ambivalence. "The correct word to describe the Bush administration on race is cynical," he says. Its policy begins by seeking to secure "the modern-day equivalent of the George Wallace vote" with appeals against trumped-up racial quotas, he says. Then the president seeks some gesture to "get a veneer of decency over the top." Edelman cites Arthur Fletcher, chairman of the US Civil Rights Commission, as an exception in this administration for his more liberal views of civil rights policy. The candidacy of David Duke in Louisiana has brought home for many Republicans the necessity to take a clear stand on racial matters. A legitimate debate over race policy, group rights, and other fundamental values issues is urgently needed, says former Bush anti-drug director William Bennett. Now studying culture and politics at the Heritage Foundation, Dr. Bennett says that if conservatives do not stake out clear territory on these issues, then extremists such as Mr. Duke will carry the debate. "Where honorable people fear to tread, the worst among us will rush in," he says. Bennett promotes a conservative agenda of fighting crime and promoting educational choice in the inner city as the "true civil rights agenda." Some outspoken members of the Bush administration share these views, especially Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp. Education Secretary Lamar Alexander is aggressively promoting educational choice, where parents can choose their childrens' schools and state funding follows the student. But, says Bennett, "the pieces need to be gathered up, sharpened, and brought under a heading of civil rights."