Is the civil rights movement fighting the wrong battles? That seems a cruel question at a time when civil rights leaders feel they must devote most of their energy to holding on to gains they thought they had already secured and refighting battles they thought they had won. But it is a question that should be asked.

Those who devote themselves to achieving equal rights and fair treatment for blacks should not allow their agenda to be set by those who are hostile or indifferent to their goals. Civil rights forces are necessarily busy defending established policies like the Voting Rights Act and denial of tax exemption to racially discriminatory private schools. But however busy they are, they should take time out to ask these questions: how are the rights of blacks abridged and fair treatment of blacks prevented in the America of 1982? How can progress best and most rapidly be made toward making our society more decent and fair toward blacks?

If the civil rights community really ponders these questions, I think it would choose to allocate its inevitably scarce resources of personnel, money and psychic energy quite differently from the way it is today. Specifically, I think the civil rights movement would achieve more gains for blacks if it devoted much less attention to the issues generally referred to as busing and quotas and devoted more attention to open housing and basic education for blacks.

Let us look at each of these issues in turn.

Busing. Brown v. Board of Education and other lawsuits ended legally required school segregation in the South. The current busing lawsuits extend the reasoning of Brown and other cases to school systems many of which never had legal segregation and most of whose separation of students of different races results from neighborhood residential patterns. Whatever the legal merits of busing cases, they have not done much to improve education for blacks. Scholars are divided on the question of whether black students have benefited, but no one argues that they have benefited very much.

Moreover, the integration produced by busing cases seldom proves to be permanent. When children are suddenly forced to attend school with children of a substantially lower socioeconomic class, parents typically move to the suburbs or seek out private schools. When busing mixes together children from such different backgrounds, they may very well end up learning a lesson we do not want to teach and that is not in fact true: that blacks inevitably are academically inferior to and economically poorer than whites.

Quotas. Quota hiring programs have produced some gains for blacks, but in the 1980s the gains are likely to diminish and the costs are likely to grow. One cost is that quota programs inevitably cast into doubt the achievements of blacks who qualify for their positions on the basis of non-quota criteria; they strengthen the erroneous prejudice that blacks cannot succeed unless given special help. A quota system requires assignment of jobs and places in schools by racial classification, which makes race a more important rather than less important characteristic in society.

Quota systems may have been useful in the short run to rectify some egregious forms of racial discrimination. But in the long run quota systems are intellectually indefensible, for they rest on the premise that in a fair society every racial and ethnic group will be represented proportionally to its population in every occupational, educational and professional category. We know from the experience of groups like Jews, Chinese and blacks, who have achieved greater than proportionate representation in certain professions despite discrimination, that this premise is false.

Both busing and quotas are under attack from the Reagan administration, and the reflex of the civil rights movement is to defend them. Moreover, institutional inertia works in favor of continuing emphasis on busing and quotas: the lawyers' organizations that bring busing cases and the equal employment bureaucracies are in place and are convinced their work should go on. But these are likely to be losing battles, since most Americans think busing and quotas are unfair. And even if the civil rights forces can win these battles, their victories will produce only marginal gains for American blacks.

Open Housing. Here is an area where major gains in racial equality are relatively easy to attain. Barriers to open housing are becoming easier to overcome, and can be lowered much furter by legislation that already has wide support. The 1980 Census showed that blacks in substantial numbers are able to buy or rent in suburbs and city neighborhoods from which they were effectively barred 20 or even 10 years ago by racial discrimination.

>A strong open housing bill of the type passed by the House and favored by a majority of the Senate in 1980 would tend to discourage the real estate industry from outright discrimination and to make it more sensitive than it is now to the possibility that black clients may want to buy or rent in areas that are now mostly white A substantial increase in the dispersion of blacks from all-black to mostly white neighborhoods would do what busing has failed to do: give black and white children a chance to attend schools they want to attend as equals and friends.

Instead of fighting efforts to end quotas and busing, the civil rights movement should concentrate on urging the Reagan administration to prove its claim that it is not racist by pushing a strong open housing law. Open housing, after all, does not entail the kind of government decision-making the Reaganites abhor in busing and quotas; it would simply allow blacks, likes whites, to freely choose where they want to live.

Basic Education. Almost everyone agrees that a substantial minority of young blacks emerge from public schools without basic skills or good work habits. Such young people are, for practical purposes, unemployable, except perhaps for a large employer who needs to fill a quota. But employment quota programs have a significant effect only on big businesses, which produced no net gain in jobs in the 1970s, and on government, which does not appear likely to be a growth industry in the 1980s.

Small employers--the growth sector of the economy--want workers with basic skills and good work habits, and undoubtedly many small employers tend to assume that all black applicants have the low skill levels and bad work habits that an unfortunately large minority do. The best way to increase job opportunities for blacks is to convince everyone that blacks are in fact receiving the basic education they need.

Probably more progress is being made here than national observers know. Competency tests for students have been sweeping the nation, starting in the South; standardized test scores in big cities have been rising; some visible black leaders have been emphasizing the need for basic skills. More needs to be done--by civil rights groups, by government, by teachers' organizations and the education schools, and by anyone else who has a good idea.

To concentrate on open housing and basic education is to concentrate on the root causes, not just some of the effects, of racial discrimination. Such a concentration requires a different deployment of the civil rights movement's resources of personnel, money, and, most important, psychic energy. The civil rights movement has been most successful when it has captured the attention of the whole society and focused its indignation on repugnant forms of racial discrimination. Its moral energy should not be squandered on arguments that 11 percent rather than 7 percent of the students in a medical school class should be black. Most Americans want to live in a racially fair society. The civil rights movement needs to focus all Americans' attention on practices that prevent blacks from enjoying equal rights--practices that can be changed.