Affirmative the Right Way

Affirmative action remains a hot issue in the United States, with wide differences of view over the correct way to expand opportunity for people who have historically been discriminated against.

The Supreme Court recently reasserted its opposition to racial preferences, letting stand lower court rulings that struck down such plans. The Clinton administration, however, has been doing what it can to preserve programs that favor minority businesses for construction contracts.

The philosophical divide behind the legal and political tensions is deep. One extreme wants a total rollback of affirmative-action programs, making individual merit the only criterion for school admissions or awarding of contracts. The other wants affirmative action to be pursued until the racial makeup of professions and schools mirrors the racial makeup of US society.

The best approach splits these extremes. It includes vigorous efforts to recruit and develop black, Hispanic, or native American candidates for, say, higher education slots. But it rejects outright quotas, which reserve a certain number of slots for particular groups. Down that road lie resentments and constitutional obstacles.

The University of California has had to move toward just such an approach. Two years ago the state's voters passed an anti-affirmative action referendum. By strong recruiting, and by giving more weight to factors like parents' education and family income, the nine-campus university system has regained many of the entering minority students it lost in the first year under the new law. Even the most competitive campuses - Berkeley and UCLA - have registered gains in minority applicants.

The lesson here is not that measures designed to wipe out affirmative action in one sweep are the way to go. Rather, it's that strategies to seek out promising minorities and match them with opportunities can pick up where quota-type approaches leave off - and with less potential divisiveness.

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