Two decades after the civil rights fervor of the 1960s the United States is still struggling to find the way toward a truly equal society. Much progress has been made. In many states the problem of school segregation has been substantially resolved: Delaware, Kentucky, and Florida, for instance, have all increased the number of blacks who attend integrated schools by more than 35 percent since the mid-'60s. Overall, 20 states now have completely integrated schools, according to a recent study by University of Chicago Prof. Gary Orfield.
But there is a long way still to go. Studies indicate that the school systems of many big cities in the North and East are actually becoming more segregated. US residential neighborhoods are being integrated very slowly, charges the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, a private group whose members include some Cabinet officers from the Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon administrations.
And there is still a fundamental disagreement between many politicians and citizen groups over what tools are needed to make jobs, homes, and schools available to all. This debate is what lies at the heart of much of the Reagan administration's recent trouble with minority and civil rights organizations.
The administration believes society should be ''colorblind'' - should treat everyone equal regardless of race. Use of affirmative-action plans and forced busing, which give preference on the basis of race, violates the principles of ''colorblindness,'' administration officials say.
''In no instance should an individual's rights rise any higher or fall any lower than the rights of others because of race,'' said William Reynolds, assistant attorney general for civil rights, in a recent speech. ''Any compromise of this principle is discrimination, plain and simple,'' he said, adding that such behavior is intolerable when employed remedially, ''in the name of affirmative action.''
Civil rights activists and many members of minority groups, on the other hand , say the US cannot become a truly ''colorblind'' society without affirmative action or quotas. Such efforts, they say, are needed to overcome the residue of discrimination built up in this country over the years, in housing, in schools, and at work.
''Affirmative-action plans are designed to deal with the forces of institutional discrimination that are embedded in our society,'' says Arthur Flemming, chairman of the US Commission on Civil Rights until dismissed by President Reagan. ''As a manager, I know I can say to my people 'we shall not discriminate,' but if that's all I do nothing will happen.''
This debate over ''colorblindness'' is a major reason Reagan fired three members of the US Civil Rights Commission on Wednesday.
The Civil Rights Commission, though its members serve at the pleasure of the President, has traditionally been a quasi-independent, bipartisan agency. The ousted commissioners - Blandina Ramirez, an Hispanic educator; Mary Frances Berry, a black who served in the education department under President Carter; and Murray Saltzman, a Baltimore rabbi - have been consistently critical of administration attitudes toward affirmative action and busing.
Commission chairman Clarence Pendleton Jr., a recent Reagan appointee, had earlier this year asked the President for some conservative reinforcements to help carry out administration civil rights policies.
''This is clearly an effort to pack the commission,'' says Rep. Julian Dixon (D) of California, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. ''It would be a grave mistake and would seriously impair (the commission's) role as an independent voice against discrimination.''
And the belief that racial quotas are wrong has led the administration to take highly controversial legal stands.
Last year, the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to strike down a Boston ''reverse discrimination'' order that resulted in white policemen and firemen being laid off before blacks and Hispanics with less seniority. The court ruled May 16 that the case was moot, since the furloughed workers had since been reinstated. In January of this year, the Justice Department filed suit to overturn a New Orleans police policy of giving half the department's promotions to blacks. This case is still pending in federal court.
Such policies are ''an inequitable infringement on the interests of innocent nonblack employees,'' says a Justice Department brief.
But critics say these policies are a perfect example of actions that are needed to change the subtle discriminatory attitudes that are part of the culture of many such organizations.
''Brick by brick, the administration is building a set of (significantly different) government policies toward integration and civil rights,'' complains Wilbur Cohen, secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Johnson.