THE student body at the University of California Los Angeles is one of the world's most colorful. Asians, blacks, whites, Latinos, and native Americans mingle on this sun-soaked campus like unwitting participants in a living tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.
But the aura of racial harmony here does not win applause from all quarters. UCLA and other UC schools are under attack for an admissions policy designed to ensure such diversity.
The attack is part of a larger effort initiated by two academics at UC Berkeley to eliminate affirm-ative action in California. A referendum is likely to be on the 1996 ballot here; and a similar bill awaits consideration in the California Assembly.
The debate is reverberating nationwide, with other states and President Clinton also starting to review affirmative-action programs. The debate will determine not only who attends UCLA in coming years, but also how soon America's underprivileged minorities will achieve economic power to match their swelling numbers.
''I think this is the beginning of a showdown at the OK Corral over the issue of race in this country,'' says UC regent Ward Connerly. ''And I think it's about time.''
The current maelstrom centers around an admissions policy that has governed the seven-campus UC system since 1980. The policy stipulates that no more than 60 percent of UC admissions can be based solely on academic achievement. The remaining 40 percent of acceptances are granted on the basis of academics and a combination of ''supplemental criteria.''
UC officials say these include economic background, age, physical disability, extracurricular activities, work experience, race, ethnicity, and whether a student is the first in his or her family to attend college.
Supreme Court ruling
This policy was designed following the US Supreme Court ruling in 1978 that race could not be the decisive factor in granting or denying college admissions. Many Californians, however, including Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, say the UC policy still allows admissions boards to engage in decisionmaking based on race.
''We haven't yet achieved the ideal of a truly colorblind meritocracy, and we must do so,'' Governor Wilson said last month. ''It's not right or fair to replace one form of discrimination with another.''
Polls show that 73 percent of Californians agree. If anti-affirmative-action measures succeed, the state would be prohibited from using ''race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin'' as factors in granting state jobs, contracts, and college admissions.
Supporters of the measures argue that the policy has strayed from its intent to help African-Americans and now encompasses almost every group but white males.
''Women alone make up more than half the population,'' says Mr. Connerly. ''Add all the racial and ethnic groups and you're talking about protecting 70 percent of California's population. It's no wonder we're seeing such seething anger.''
While Connerly, who is black, credits affirmative action with bringing minorities along faster, he says it has also ''created a lot of resentment and made the credentials of all blacks in powerful positions somehow suspect.''
The civil rights movement succeeded in the past, he says, because it maintained the moral high ground. Now, he argues, the movement's insistence on affirmative action has begun to violate the basic belief in fairness that most Americans share.
Instead of affirmative action, he says, minorities should press for tougher anti-discrimination laws and advocate preferences based on ''economic disadvantage.''
Yet the UCLA administration remains unconvinced that the school's diversity program needs revamping.
''Affirmative action is not about redressing past wrongs or atonement for slavery,'' said longtime UCLA Chancellor Charles Young in an interview. ''And it's not something we give to other people. It's something we do for ourselves.''
The diversity program is not as much a method of selecting students, he says, as an outreach program that locates eligible minorities who would not otherwise apply. Their presence in college, Chancellor Young says, is crucial to their communities and to the nation's future.
''Ten years ago, people were talking about the end of the American civilization,'' Young says. ''Today, I'm confident that we can compete in a world economy precisely because of our diversity.'' Our society, he adds, ''is far healthier today than it would have been if schools like UCLA were not doing what they've been doing for 25 years.''
Julian Eule, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, argues that opposition to the diversity program is based on misconceptions. First, he says, everyone admitted under UCLA's diversity program already meets the academic standards necessary for admission.
Second, Dr. Eule says, calls for admitting students based solely on grades and standardized-test scores incorrectly assume that all high schools are equal, and that numbers are adequate predictors of collegiate success. Instead of scrapping the diversity program, Eule says UCLA should downplay numbers and focus on ''the whole person.''
''Most of the critics of affirmative action have been privileged their whole lives,'' says Diana Ponce-Gomez, a law student who assists with admissions for Latino students. ''They went to the best schools, had the best training, and they think that everyone else had the same opportunities and privileges. That's just not how it is.''
''Those opposing affirmative action think we are all the same, simply because the Constitution made it so,'' UCLA graduate Dawn Malabon writes in a recent Daily Bruin column. ''I certainly don't know any people of color, poor people, or women, who feel they are treated or viewed on the same level as white males.''
Stephen Wong, cochair of the Asian-Pacific Islander Law Students Association at UCLA, says the diversity program is essential to avoid a uniform student body.
''It's important at a public school like UCLA that its students reflect the entire community, especially in California, where the minority population is going to be the majority at some point,'' he says.
Indeed, the call for an end to affirmative action comes at a time when California's demographics are changing rapidly.
Among the 3,930 freshman at UCLA, 38 percent are Asian, 29 percent white, 19 percent Hispanic, 8 percent black, and 1 percent native American. By contrast, California's high school seniors are 46 percent white, 31 percent Hispanic, 14 percent Asian, and 7 percent black. According to those numbers, critics of affirmative action point out, whites are underrepresented in UCLA's freshman class.
40 percent is not enough
Yet Ms. Ponce-Gomez says that because minorities tend to come to college less-prepared than their white counterparts, they make up the majority of the students competing for ''diversity'' slots. With that in mind, she says, the 40 percent cutoff for diversity admissions is too limited.
''You have five different ethnic groups competing for that 40 percent, plus some white students who are older or physically challenged,'' she says. ''These quotas cut both ways.''
Ponce-Gomez argues that racism is one source of the attack on affirmative action: the same sentiment she says aided passage of California's Proposition 187, which denies government services to illegal aliens.
Nevertheless, Connerly argues that true racial parity can only be won on a level playing field. ''The centerpiece of life in America is competition,'' he says, and anyone who gets a head start will be resented.
''We should celebrate diversity when it naturally happens,'' Connerly concludes, ''but be very careful when we try to orchestrate it. True brotherhood has to come from the heart.''