A DEAN temporarily running Harvard University once confided to us that the university had consistently rejected many brilliant Asian-American applicants.
His explanation was simple: African-American applicants could otherwise legitimately protest that yet another later-arriving minority group was leapfrogging past them. America is now fully engaged in rethinking the terrible dilemma caused when righting a grievous historic wrong creates such a new wrong.
All branches of government are having to face the national unease that has been growing ever since the Bakke case of 1978. This week it was the Supreme Court.
Soon it will be the Clinton administration with its affirmative-action review. The Congress will respond to both the court and White House actions. The state of California will hear from its voter referendum next year.
At the end of this string of actions, it now seems likely, affirmative action programs in schools, hiring, and contract signing will be restricted. Does this have to mean an end to advancement for black Americans, other minorities, and women in schools, private industry, and government jobs? No. But it does clearly put the next pressure on President Clinton's review commission to be hard-headed about the solutions it recommends.
The aim here is primarily to help disadvantaged black Americans out of the historic hole dug by slavery and its aftermath - not to make a majority of Americans into competing minority enclaves seeking to gain at the expense of one another. No one, we hope, wants to see Chinese-American women capable of becoming summa graduates in math relegated to garment district sweat shops.
Both White House advisers and congressional revisionists ought to keep one aim in mind: A lot of action should continue to center on helping to create minority students confident in their abilities, not complacent about an automatic job slot. That means more efforts to shake up school administrators and teacher unions. Like it or not, America will continue to be a melting pot. It needs first-rate public schools to prevent it from becoming an unmelted, unfair, and inefficient society in its workplaces and neighborhoods.