Rights Battle Resumes

CONGRESS is girding for a battle over a civil rights bill similar to the one President Bush vetoed last fall. The primary purpose of the bill is to reverse five decisions handed down by the Supreme Court in 1989. The rulings generally made it harder for minority and women plaintiffs to prevail in job-discrimination lawsuits, especially so-called "disparate impact" suits. In such actions, plaintiffs try to show that, despite the absence of deliberate bias, an employer's seemingly neutral hiring or promotion practices have the effect of discriminating. Under the proposed law, once a plaintiff establishes an appar ent race, ethnicity, or gender imbalance in an employer's workforce, the burden shifts to the employer to justify that his hiring or promotion standards are related to legitimate job requirements.

Conservatives - and, with their prodding, the administration - oppose the bill on the ground that it fosters employment quotas. Their argument is that, to avoid costly lawsuits, employers will "hire by the numbers" to ensure that their workforces correspond with local demographics. Merit hiring and promotions would be sacrificed. Advocates of the bill reject that contention.

Three broad points here:

* First, the quotas issue is a factual question that surely is susceptible to better empirical proof or disproof than has so far been put forward by either side. Instead of jostling over charged terms like "quotas" and "reverse discrimination," would sociologists and legal scholars please do some serious number crunching?

* Second, Democrats and Republicans can probably resolve their differences if they want to. Negotiations over the bill nearly succeeded last fall. But Republicans may no longer care to compromise, for political reasons. Election results in November indicated that the quotas issue packs a political wallop among some white working people. The GOP should be careful that, in playing politics over the bill, it doesn't sink to racist pandering.

* Third, the bill, if artfully crafted, would be a useful addition to civil rights law. However, it doesn't address the main problems facing many blacks in a country where the inner city is decaying, the black family is dissolving, black infant mortality is higher than in the third world, and the leading cause of death for young black men is murder. These problems are still waiting.

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