Washington — Civil rights activists and Reagan administration policymakers are locked in a bitter struggle over the future form of affirmative-action programs in the United States. It is a struggle being fought on three fronts simultaneously:
Members of the Reagan Cabinet are sharply divided over the proposed redrafting of a 20-year-old presidential order designed to end discrimination by government contractors. One proposed new draft would outlaw the use of goals and timetables in minority-hiring programs.
The US Supreme Court is hearing three cases this term dealing with affirmative-action issues. The Supreme Court justices are expected to provide major guidance toward resolving the debate over affirmative action.
The US Department of Justice has attempted to redraft some 56 affirmative-action consent decrees nationwide in an effort to preclude the use of goals and timetables in minority-hiring plans at the state, county, and local levels.
The underlying issue is whether race or gender-conscious remedies should be used in an effort to prevent discrimination and correct the longstanding inequities women and minorities have suffered as disenfranchised members of the US citizenry.
The issue has become so divisive that even President Reagan's Cabinet is unable to reach a consensus on it.
A decision by the President concerning the executive order for federal contractors was delayed until after the Reagan-Gorbachev summit. Administration spokesmen say the issue hasn't yet been scheduled for consideration. Some observers say the administration is treating the issue gingerly out of concern that a negative public reaction might backfire on Senate Republicans facing reelection next fall.
Ralph Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, promises a ``firestorm of criticism'' should the administration alter the existing executive order, signed by President Johnson in 1965. He says more than 230 members of Congress (including 55 senators) have written to the President urging him not to change the executive order.
The order currently applies to some 15,000 federal contractors employing 23 million workers.
The Cabinet debate has been described primarily as a split between the ideas of Attorney General Edwin Meese III and those of Labor Secretary William Brock.
Mr. Meese and Justice Department civil rights chief William Bradford Reynolds are strong opponents of race-conscious goals and timetables in hiring plans. They maintain that such goals inevitably degenerate into strict hiring quotas that discriminate against nonminorities.
Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Meese favor a ``colorblind'' approach to minority hiring and promotion, through which employers are encouraged to hire women and minorities but are not required to employ any specific number. They also oppose the use of statistics as proof of racial or other discrimination.
Labor Secretary Brock is less suspicious of goals and timetables. He maintains they don't necessarily break down into rigid quotas and are sometimes useful in helping correct past discrimination.
Civil rights leaders say that eliminating goals and timetables from affirmative-action programs would leave these programs toothless and ineffective. Without goals, they say, many employers would lack the incentive to broaden their pool of job candidates.
``The society hasn't reached a point in its development where we can ignore the influence of race in our decisions,'' says Ronald L. Ellis, who heads the employment discrimination unit of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Civil rights attorneys argue that affirmative-action programs are not a handout for unqualified minorities. Rather, they say, affirmative action is a means of opening a new door and reaching out to those minorities who are fully qualified for the job in question, but who may not have been aware of the opportunity.
``Affirmative action has proved to be very successful.'' says Mr. Neas. ``Affirmative action has enabled millions of Americans to have equal access to the work place and the education environment,'' he adds.
Neas charges that Meese and Reynolds are using the goals and timetables debate as a ``smokescreen'' to cover up the Reagan administration's widespread nonenforcement of existing civil rights laws.
Richard T. Seymour of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law agrees. ``The Justice Department has not been enforcing the law,'' he says. ``They only have so many attorneys and so much money to spend, and instead of spending it on what Congress wants them to spend it on they are spending it on this wild goose chase.''
Mr. Seymour adds, ``Rather than resources going to ending discrimination they are going instead to block the remedies to discrimination.''