Affirmative action today is: A. A dead issue. B. Alive and well and thriving in the courts.
C. A spoils system for minorities and women.
D. Undefined, and therefore unenforceable.
The answer is E. All of the above, according to several administration spokesmen and their critics who gathered at a recent conference on Equal Employment Opportunity and the Reagan administration, sponsored by the Bureau of National Affairs, a private information service in Washington.
''We have never defined affirmative action, never polled the public to see what they think it means,'' says John Fox, executive assistant at the Office of Federal Contract Compliance. ''A lot of people think it means parity. But surprise! Parity is never mentioned in any of the Labor Department directives.''
''Affirmative action means striving for parity,'' says Barbara Lindemann Schlei, an antidiscrimination lawyer at the Los Angeles firm of Seyfarth, Shaw, Fairweather & Geraldson, ''and it's still very much alive in the courts - especially the state courts.''
She believes affirmative action has worked and points to new figures from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) taken from the 1980 census: ''Between 1967 and 1980, women gained 5 million new jobs, blacks gained 1.5 million, and Hispanics, 1 million,'' she says.
But for William Bradford Reynolds, the administration's controversial assistant attorney general for civil rights who once referred to affirmative action quotas as a ''spoils system,'' the system has failed. ''There have been any number of statistical studies comparing the progress of minorities into the work force between 1960 and 1972, before affirmative action, and from 1972 to today, which indicate that progress in the earlier years was better in most categories of public employment. It's also clear that when you start relying on race for promotion, it carries a stigma which can cause dissatisfaction in the workplace.''
But William Arthur Webb, commissioner of EEOC, wants to know ''where the spoils are. They're not in unemployment, where blacks carry the heavier burden, and they're certainly not in income, with 30 percent of all black families still living below poverty level,'' he points out.
A large part of the debate focuses on the solution to discriminatory hiring and promotion practices, and the administration's efforts to eliminate the quota system. ''Without the quotas, you eliminate the arbitrary ceiling on hiring that employers can use to keep from employing more qualified minorities,'' says Mr. Reynolds, ''or from hiring a qualified white man, because the numbers aren't right.''
Commissioner Webb says that quotas are only used by EEOC as an ''extraordinary remedy'' to solve discrimination problems, and warns that ''it's too easy to overlook the problems of discrimination by arguing over the remedies. Common sense requires that you use whatever measure will effectively remedy the problem at hand,'' he thinks.
But Mr. Reynolds worries that the remedies may be worse than the problem they're trying to solve. Using race and gender quotas to solve race and gender discrimination is like ''using alcohol to overcome alcoholism,'' he feels, and tends to hurt other employees and potential employees more than it helps minorities and women.
Despite polemics, both Commissioner Webb and Mr. Reynolds believe the administration's record in pursuing antidiscrimination cases has been good and that the fight continues to end discriminatory practices in workplaces that refuse hiring and promotion on the basis of race or gender.
Ms. Schlei agrees that the fight goes on, but gives the credit for moving women and minorities into the work force to ''businesses, who for the most part really want to do the right thing, and partially to government, who have helped in their clumsy way,'' she says. ''If you speak to personnel officers around the country, they'll tell you it's really helpful to have the government out there with their regulations'' to act as guides, she said in an interview.
''But employers are beginning to say, Hey, the government doesn't really enforce this stuff anymore,'' she says, and are becoming less stringent in their efforts to hire women and minorities.
''This issue is not going to go away,'' she emphasizes, ''but the action will be in the courts. I expect to see a large number of class action cases in the 1980s.''