Strategy on Affirmative Action

THE idea will spread like wild fire across a parched prairie on a windy day.''

This was how the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), intended to eliminate affirmative action programs, was introduced recently. It would not diminish the force of the 1964 Civil Rights Law, Tom Woods, co-author of the initiative, told those attending the Pacific Research Institute breakfast; on the contrary, it builds on the 1964 law and expands its protection, especially to white males.

The Clinton administration has announced a top-to-bottom review of affirmative action programs in response to the Republican leadership's stated intention of making an issue of them.

But the Republicans are on the offensive. Affirmative action is an issue about which they long have harbored ill feelings. To avoid the label of race-baiting, they will pick their battles, such as the repeal of section 1071 of the Internal Revenue Code. It was under 1071 that Viacom proposed selling its cable television stations to a minority interest and deferring a significant tax levy.

The issue has the same potential to drive a wedge through the heart of the Democratic Party as the abortion issue has for the Republicans.

Bill Clinton understood in 1992 that success depended on his bridging the gap between liberal and mainstream Democrats. This is where the affirmative action debate threatens to drive its wedge today.

The debate has the Democrat Party's back to the wall. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed on behalf of traditional Democratic constituencies and honored the commitment to civil rights of both presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

Over 30 years, the law has been used to redress discrimination against minorities, notably blacks and women, in employment, schools, and public accommodation. Today, critics say, the law is being wielded to pit the rights of groups against the rights of the individual, regardless of color, race, or creed.

What began as an effort to correct injustices toward blacks, and later women, has turned into a program favoring minority identity as the guiding principle in hiring, university admissions, and awarding of government contracts.

Unless Democrats act swiftly and effectively, they risk being held responsible for permitting the codification of preferential treatment in the name of opportunity for all. Unless they clarify their position, they risk alienating constituencies with roots deep in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt.

President Clinton's an-nouncement of a review is late to the game. Efforts must be redoubled and the high ground seized to shape a consensus satisfactory to all, including white men. Here's how:

For starters, voters should be reminded of affirmative action's historical achievements. The playing field is more level now than it was in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused a back seat on the bus in Montgomery, Ala. Likewise, there is value in conceding that affirmative action was never intended to be permanent.

On the other hand, it should be acknowledged that the playing field is still far from level. Economic remedies that could assuage the anger fomented by race-conscious policies should be researched. In the meantime, the bandwagon CCRI supporters hope for already is attracting racist support.

Good policy derives from consensus. Countless polls show that affirmative action has less than majority support, including from minorities who decry the stigma of success derived from ``special treatment.''

The goal should be inclusiveness. If Republicans continue to fan the fire, Democrats should make sure they feel the heat too. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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