ONE hundred thirty years after the Civil War and 30 years after the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, race remains a burning question for Americans. Look at the effort in California to roll back affirmative action policies thought to discriminate against whites. Or the turmoil at Rutgers University in New Jersey over remarks by the school's president about blacks' ability to compete academically.
Proponents of the California Civil Rights Initiative, the anti-affirmative action measure aiming for the 1996 ballot, emphasize fairness. They cite favoritism toward less qualified minority applicants for state jobs or slots in professional schools. They claim the state uses race as a determining factor in such matters, rather than one of many factors, as required by the US Supreme Court in a landmark reverse discrimination ruling 17 years ago.
Those opposing the California ballot initiative also make a case for fairness. They see policies designed to open academic and professional doors for African-Americans or Hispanics as crucial in view of officially sanctioned racial discrimination in the past.
Those contrasting positions could define emotional battle lines -- or they could set the terms for a national dialogue to keep the country on course toward greater justice for all. There's considerable consensus that affirmative action policies need rethinking. Perhaps socioeconomic need, not ethnicity, should be the critical factor in helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds, something suggested by thoughtful people of various racial backgrounds.
Such rethinking of affirmative action doesn't mean the abandonment of efforts to enhance opportunities for blacks and other minorities. A legacy of racial discrimination and animosity still clings to America, and the country must continue to work its way free of it.
Incidents like the Rutgers uproar show how sensitive that process can be. University president Francis Lawrence's comments, made last November but publicized only this month, implied that ''genetic, hereditary background'' may determine test scores. It was an unfortunate choice of words and out of keeping with Dr. Lawrence's own record as an administrator who favors greater diversity on campus. He has repeatedly apologized for misspeaking, so far to little avail.
The Rutgers controversy and the California initiative are occurring at a time when theories linking intellectual ability to race are rocking the academic world, and the country is taking a swing rightward, with the likely effect of trimming programs that benefit largely nonwhite, disadvantaged people. Reason, compassion, and, yes, forgiveness, are needed to keep Americans constructively engaged in resolving the issue of race.