Three good things have come out of the current debate on affirmative action:
* Fresh recognition that members of minorities still often face the discrimination that affirmative action was designed to ameliorate.
* Confirmation that affirmative action is properly defined not as preference for members of any group but as removal of barriers to opportunity for all.
* Realization that communities, businesses, and individuals must do more practical affirmative action as government takes less responsibility.
All three themes come together in a recently reported University of Southern California program supported by private foundations and business. It provides financial aid for graduate work by highly qualified members of minorities. They are added to the pool of candidates for executive positions in the health-care industry. No nonminority applicant is denied admission in order to admit a minority applicant.
More publicized is the multimillion-dollar effort by Texaco to prevent further discrimination of the sort recently acknowledged. The exposure of race or gender discrimination in various businesses dramatizes the need for action to eliminate it.
Last week Attorney General Janet Reno, speaking on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, made a promise: "The next four years will see our continued attack on the legacy of discrimination that has created so much inequality and that continues to have a devastating impact on our society."
Pessimistic commentators immediately argued that President Clinton has been more talk than action on this front. Only he can prove them wrong. In his inauguration speech, he gave hope by his emphasis on racial unity and opportunity for all.
Meanwhile, the attorney general has countered the view of affirmative action as giving special preferences to women and minorities while holding nonminorities accountable for long-gone events: "The fact that many minorities and women are still struggling at the bottom of the economic ladder suggests that this criticism misses the mark - society's reality belies all the purported special treatment for minorities." Echoing the president's first-term words, she added: "When affirmative action is done right, there are no quotas, there are no preferences for the unqualified, and the programs end when their objectives have been achieved."
No wonder the administration opposes California's Proposition 209, which now faces court challenges. The measure purports to rule out preferences but clearly targets affirmative action itself. Ward Connerly, black flagbearer for Prop. 209, has started a national organization to help other states follow his lead.
Anyone would applaud Mr. Connerly's stated goal of a society that considers every man and woman as an individual and gives no weight to color or gender in relation to opportunity. Getting to that America for all will take the good offices of business as well as governmental follow-through on the president's pledges and the attorney general's specific words.