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HOW TO DECIDE THE FATE OF AFFIRMATIVE ACTION

After 30 years of quotas designed to help women and racial minorities get more education and better jobs, has such affirmative action - as it's called - outlived its usefulness?

Though a national debate is well under way on this issue in and out of Congress, the question is still easier to ask than to answer.On the one hand, there are clearly more women in the work force and more minorities in the classroom now than there were even a decade or so ago. We now have police, doctors, teachers, lawyers and executives of both sexes and all races, busting old stereotypes every day. But there can be no denying that racism and dis-crim-ination persist. Witness the lingering racial tensions in many major cities and many college campuses. Witness, too, the fact that white males still hold all but a few of the top jobs in business and government.

Under these circumstances, the current debate over the future of affirmative action seems likely to generate more heat than light. But that unfortunate atmosphere doesn't mean the debate will go away - nor should it. Any program or policy that has persisted as long as this one ought to be re-examined periodically - and there's no shortage of those eager to do the job.

For one, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who used to look favorably on the rights of women and racial minorities, now plans to introduce a bill to kill federally sponsored affirmative action programs. If a Congress already probing affirmative action doesn't act, other presidential hope-fuls are threatening to make this program a key issue in the 1996 election. In response, the White House is talking about forming a bipartisan commission to examine the pros and cons of affirmative action. This suggestion is endorsed by House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt.

If the various political leaders would pay closer attention to their constituents, the dispute over affirmative action might be relatively easy to resolve. But that isn't always easy to do because the current debate seems to be dominated by a few highly vocal extremists at opposite poles of the issue rather than by the broad spectrum of public opinion.

As a result, one side often depicts opponents of affirmative action as racists or Uncle Toms while the other side insists the program's champions are pushing what one lawmaker calls "a racial classification system similar to what Adolf Hitler imposed in Nazi Germany."

Both sides simply must tone down their rhetoric if the current debate is not to become much more nasty and polarizing than it needs to be.

One way do that would be to blow the dust off the many public opinion polls over the years showing that opposition to affirmative action goes far beyond the angry white males who are said to have played a big role in last November's elections.

Rather, those polls show affirmative action is opposed by solid majorities of blacks and other minorities. Why? Because they resent being treated as if they could not get ahead on their own merits. And because they realize that preferential treatment in the name of social justice is simply another form of discrimination.

The idea, then, is not to turn back the clock or abandon the objective of even more progress than American already has achieved for women and racial minorities. But surely a country as ingenious as this one can find ways to pursue social justice that are not as patronizing and insulting to the beneficiaries as affirmative action has been.

For that to happen, both sides of the debate must abandon the name-calling and start cooperating in the search for ways to promote personal and professional advancement based on merit but without abandoning compassion.