How far do Massachusetts legislators reflect American public opinion when they vote almost unanimously to make an economic protest against racial discrimination in South Africa? Some indication will lie in whether other states follow the Massachusetts decision to withdraw pension fund investments from firms doing business in South Africa.
There was not much of a ripple from the legislature's earlier budget amendments that have, since Sept. 1, 1979, forbidden adding to South Africa-related investments. But last year Connecticut became the first state to order divestment of such investments, with a pending sale of $13.8 million in stocks announced last month. Now the Massachusetts legislature has gone so far as to override a governor's veto and require reinvestment of some $100 million in stocks and bonds.
Ironically one of the firms affected is the Ford Motor Company, which is said to have won credit with black South Africans for pioneering in relations with unionized black labor. Such enlightened efforts will be remembered, say some blacks, when the black majority eventually attains its rights.
Here is the dilemma for investors concerned about the moral uses of their money:
* Is it better to take a radical stand to protest a government's actions whether or not it is ''pragmatically'' effective? Washington's almost go-it-alone boycott of the Moscow Olympics to protest the invasion of Afghanistan is an example. This is what the late black leader Steve Biko urged on outside investors in South Africa. He said that the moral gesture of withholding support from an apartheid regime outweighed, for example, any loss of employment for blacks.
* Or is it better to leave investments in companies that provide employment for blacks and seek to improve their lot through fair employment practices as defined, for example, in the so-called Sullivan principles adopted by many American firms? When American civil rights leader Andrew Young was ambassador to the United Nations he supported this view, while nevertheless applauding the moral impulse that various groups were then trying to express by getting rid of South African investments.
State pension funds present the extra question of protecting equity for future beneficiaries. Connecticut officials say they will sell stock in four firms doing business in South Africa when market conditions are favorable. This may take the edge off a moral gesture, but it can hardly be faulted when someone else's money is used to make the gesture.
Speaking of moral gestures, the one by Massachusetts could turn out to be hollow indeed. If, that is, it leaves the legislators looking more willing to make a ringing statement on racial discrimination far away than to dig in on eliminating it closer to home.
For instance, they did seek to toughen the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination some years ago. But there is controversy over its recent record. Whatever the pros and cons of financial disinvestments in foreign countries, racial justice at home is a direct responsibility.