Now under increasing attack, especially in the courts, is a principal American response to the problems of racial discrimination: affirmative action and its corollary, a numerical quota system. Many white Americans never wholly accepted this solution. They held that such an effort to rectify past discrimination against blacks resulted in current discrimination against whites.
Opposition among whites has risen in recent years as a formerly expanding economy contracted, throwing more blacks and whites into job competition. And raising the question of whether racial quotas should be used in municipal employee layoffs.
Additionally, over the past decade Americans have begun to realize that a new pluralism has grown up in their midst. White males realize now that they compete not only with blacks for jobs but also with women and the growing Hispanic and Asian minorities. This has greatly complicated the search for equality of opportunity in the workplace and society in general. Answers that seemed appropriate two short decades ago now are under fire.
The Reagan administration has joined several lawsuits on these issues, now moving through the courts. In essence, the administration seeks to overthrow the broad use of affirmative action and quotas based on race, asserting they are unconstitutional. It wants to restrict court protection to those individuals who personally have been victims of racial discrimination.
This was the administration's position in arguments Tuesday before the US Supreme Court, in a case involving layoffs of firefighters in Memphis, Tenn.
A distinction should be made between affirmative action and racial quotas: The two are clearly separable. Affirmative action as a principle ought to be pursued with vigor throughout society. The ultimate key is better education: In general, schools with sizable minority student bodies need more educational resources than they have to improve their educating of tomorrow's jobholders. In the workplace, blacks and other minorities should be diligently recruited and given such special education and training as is indicated. There can be no backing down on the US commitment to equality of opportunity to all.
Racial quotas are more contentious. Setting specific numbers for the hiring, promotion, or firing of persons - according to race, rather than to potential or demonstrated ability - is at odds with the cherished American concept of the value and worth of each individual. Yet if there were no quotas, stringent monitoring would be essential to ensure that minorities were given every opportunity to gain jobs and promotions. Progress must continue.
Part of the controversy is over the conflict between those who see progress as individual and those who believe group progress is most feasible for blacks. The Reagan administration has come down on the side of the individual. Some others, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, hold that the only feasible way for substantial numbers of qualified blacks to gain good jobs is through quotas. That debate will persist. But there can be no questioning the need for American society - schools, businesses, government, and individuals - to move forcefully to provide minorities with equality of opportunity. It will redound to the nation's advantage manyfold. And it is the rightm thing to do.