AFFIRMATIVE action is one of those terms that invariably generate strong public opinion -- although many people are uncertain what the term means. Civil rights groups consider affirmative action a key tool in improving equality of opportunity for minorities, but the concept is under stiff attack from the United States Justice Department. Early next month the Supreme Court is to hear arguments on a major affirmative-action case involving appointment of school personnel. The court's ruling is likely to have a profound effect on American society.
Over the years surveys have found that the American public says it strongly supports the concept of affirmative action: It is part of the American tradition of strong support for the basic value of equality of opportunity. This past weekend, for example, the latest Harris survey reported that by 75 to 21 percent Americans say they support federal laws that require affirmative-action programs for women and minorities, as long as there are no quotas.
Americans recognize that their nation has not always provided equality of opportunity and believe the US must work harder to provide it. They see the concept of affirmative action as a way to move toward equality of opportunity for all.
Yet Americans, as surveys repeatedly show, oppose both quotas and preferential treatment.
In past years the courts have ruled rigid quotas unconstitutional. It remains to be seen how they will view the coming case, which involves preferential treatment for minorities through quotas.
In general the public has a very positive view of the courts, except that it thinks they are too lenient with criminals. Thus far Americans do not appear to have a clear opinion of the court's actions on affirmative action, although the possibility exists that this may change after the Supreme Court's decisions this year.
The concept of affirmative action deserves support. Special assistance is warranted to enable many minorities, historically the victims of discrimination, to achieve the equality of opportunity all Americans deserve.
Some affirmative-action programs, especially those based on rigid quotas, may have produced serious inequities for the non-minority population. If so, the excesses should be trimmed.
Yet the concept of affirmative action is laudable, deserving of broad support. One aspect of the opposition to it by the Justice Department is particularly worrisome: the prospect that there might be a hidden agenda, on the part of some officials, that takes aim at affirmative action as a way of chipping away at the civil rights gains of the last 30 years.
Equality of opportunity deserves the strong public backing it apparently has. A major challenge to government officials is to see whether they can find a way to bring about equality of opportunity for all citizens without incurring the enmity of non-minorities and thus establishing unnecessary divisiveness.