Affirmative action at a crossroads. Reagan administration steers toward case-by-case approach

A young California mother was conditioning her four-year-old son for the ``real world'' as they embarked on a trip to his grandparents' home halfway across the country. ``Eric,'' she began, ``grandma and grandpa don't believe in some of the same things we do.'' The youngster looked confused. His mother continued: ``For instance, they don't go to the same church we go to.'' Eric was amazed. ``Well, there are many people in Chicago who don't go to our church,'' she persisted.

``Name 'em!'' Eric demanded.

If Eric had been a little older and mother a bit more cavalier, she might have responded: ``Look kid, take my word for it. There are those in the Windy City who march to a different drummer. I don't need to name them. I know they are there.''

That's the rationale US civil rights leaders have used for several decades in prodding government agencies and public businesses to adopt broad-based affirmative action goals for minority employment. They don't always know exactly the names of those who are discriminated against. But they say such bias exists without listing individually those who have been offended.

For the most part, federal policy and the courts have supported this approach. Until recently, nobody had called for ``naming'' the victims.

But the Reagan administration, through its Justice Department, has of late taken the position that much group-oriented affirmative action is really reverse discrimination, and that implementation of goals and job quotas to enhance the employment of women, blacks, and other minorities is really just another form of racism.

Genuine instances of discrimination should rightly be redressed, says Bradford Reynolds, head of the US Justice Department's civil rights division. But give us specifics, not generalities, insists Reynolds. In Eric's words, ``name 'em!''

Significantly, the future of affirmative action in the United States may well hang on whether the courts ultimately decide that job discrimination should continue to be addressed on a group basis -- and injustices of yesteryear remedied by giving minorities special consideration today -- or whether grievances should now be considered only on a case-by-case basis.

A trio of cases now before the US Supreme Court speak to this issue and underlying affirmative-action policies.

One case examines the legality of a federal court decree under which the city of Cleveland agreed to promote black and Hispanic firefighters ahead of whites who had received higher scores on qualifying tests. Another looks at a court-ordered racial quota for membership in the New York sheet metal workers' union.

A third assesses a Jackson, Mich., plan -- voluntarily adopted by the school board -- which preserves jobs for black schoolteachers by laying off whites with more seniority.

Many believe the Cleveland case in particular is pivotal to the future of affirmative action. It also is symbolic of the broader debate in which displaced white workers argue that hiring proposals favoring minorities over longer-tenured whites tend to perpetuate bias rather than remedy it.

The federal order in Ohio calls for approximately 50 percent of the promotions in Cleveland's fire department to go to qualified minority candidates. City officials and groups representing black and Hispanic firefighters agreed to this arrangement. But it was challenged by Local 93 of the International Association of Firefighters, who claimed this process illegally discriminates against whites. The Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the agreement. The Justice Department now wants it overturned by the Supreme Court.

In fact, the Reagan administration would like to bar all state and local governments from entering into court-approved consent decrees to allow racial ``quotas'' for job hiring and promotions. Instead, it would favor alleged discrimination to be handled on a person-by-person basis.

Civil rights and municipal groups, on the other hand, say the federal government's ``victim specific'' approach is impractical and would greatly slow the process of bringing minorities into the work force.

They also hold that local governments are better equipped than the federal bureaucracy to deal with minority job-related problems in the community and to promote racial harmony among citizens.

Further, they insist that numerical remedies are the only effective way to force employees and unions to abandon long-practiced racial biases in hiring. Legal injunctions against discrimination fail to get desired results, they contend.

The Supreme Court's recent decisions on affirmative action in the workplace are a mixed bag. In one case it ruled that a private employer may run a special training program that reserves half of its positions for blacks. In another, it upheld a law which required that 10 percent of all federal grants for local construction projects be set aside for minority-owned businesses.

However, two years ago, the justices invalidated a Memphis affirmative action plan that protected city fire department jobs of minorities and women over more-tenured white workers. This ruling spelled out that the seniority system could not be set aside to benefit individuals who were not proven victims of discrimination. In effect, it opened the door to the ``name 'em'' approach.

Some saw the Memphis decision as the beginning of the end for job-related affirmative action. However, when the Reagan administration subsequently attempted to use this ruling to outlaw all racially inspired job quotas, most federal courts applied it only to the seniority question.

Now the future of affirmative action may rest on the banks of Lake Erie and on a clearer judicial acceptance or rejection of the ``name 'em'' concept. A Thursday column

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