Programs that give minorities and women preference in jobs and education are facing increasing opposition. President Reagan has rapped what he described as racial "quotas" in some of these "affirmative action" plans. Scholars are debating the value of setting aside opportunities for members of ethnic groups. And this week Sen. Orrin G. Hatch opened hearings on a constitutional amendment to ban government action to favor any race.
The Utah Republican, Capitol Hill's chief foe of affirmative action, admits that his amendment has no chance of passing this year, if ever. But he says he is trying to force into public a debate that many have hesitated to join for fear of being labeled as a racist.
At issue is a series of federal actions dating back to executive orders issued by President Lyndon Johnson. The orders required contractors to prove that they did not discriminate by race or sex in order to be hired by the government.
In government projects, the affirmative action goal has been to reserve 10 percent of contracts for minority-owned businesses. Related rules for universities which receive federal funds have brought more women and blacks into law and medical schools.
Such affirmative action is a "policy that denies that all persons are entitled to the equal protection of the laws," says Senator Hatch, who also calls it "a return to the medieval notion of government by status."
Robert Allen Sedler, law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, counters that without affirmative action blacks and women will never be full participants in American society.
"If we have racial neutrality, we will perpetuate and maintain white supremacy," he said at Senator Hatch's hearing May 4.
Competition for medical school is so keen that "few if any black applicants will be admitted" unless race is considered as a factor, said Mr. Sedler.
Siding with Senator Hatch, William Van Alstyne, law professor at Duke University, called for a federal statute to outlaw affirmative action. He argued that preferential treatment puts a "badge of inferiority" on minorities, saying in effect that a black lawyer or doctor is less qualified than a white one. Harvard University political scientist Martin Kilson, the only black to testify at the hearing, conceded that preferential treatment does put a stigma on black professionals, but he said the burden is not insufferable. He called for keeping affirmative action programs going for 15 years and then cutting them off.
Opponents may stop some of affirmative action long before that. So far, the Reagan administration has not moved to change Lyndon Johnson's executive orders, and Congress is not likely to pass new legislation.
But opposition such as that from Senator Hatch could lead to less-energetic enforcement. Sedler said after the hearing this week that "the primary objective of the opposition to affirmative action is to legitimize exe cutive nonenforcement."
Civil rights groups are waiting in the wings to file lawsuits if this occurs.