`Reverse' Bias

AFFIRMATIVE action is frequently denounced by opponents as ``reverse discrimination.'' That loaded term, however, is hardly an accurate description of the worthy efforts in many cases to eliminate bias based on race or gender. Many employers, for instance, have succeeded - through recruitment outreach, special training programs, and other means - in opening new employment doors for minorities without discriminating against majority-group workers.

But what about instances when a qualified white or male worker allegedly is denied a job or a promotion because of the operation of an affirmative-action plan? Should this person be denied a remedy because of America's overriding goal of helping certain groups held down by history?

In a case last year the Supreme Court allowed white firefighters in Birmingham, Ala., to attack a consent decree entered into by the city in 1981. At the time, blacks occupied only entry-level jobs in the Birmingham fire department. Under the court-approved consent decree, the city agreed to hire and promote blacks in equal numbers with whites until blacks were fairly represented throughout the fire department.

In permitting the whites' suit, the Supreme Court applied the ancient rule that people's rights can't be foreclosed by agreements in which they didn't participate. But the civil rights community was alarmed, foreseeing a rash of legal attacks on bias-ending consent decrees. Indeed, a number of such cases are being initiated.

We don't want to see any undoing of the widespread good achieved by legal efforts to redress discrimination. Yet race- or gender-based remedies are, by their nature, also susceptible to abuse. True reverse discrimination, probably rare, is no more acceptable than its opposite.

Legal scholars say that white plaintiffs in such cases face an uphill battle. Still, they deserve their day in court. Equal opportunity will likely take decades to achieve, to all citizens' satisfaction.

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