THE ADMINISTRATION is riding to the aid of the wrong victims in the civil rights bill. The problem is not quotas that might occur, but discrimination that has. As Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in dissenting from the Supreme Court decision that is at the heart of the dispute, and that the legislation seeks to overturn, the issue is the "probative value" to be given to "evidence of a racially stratified work force."
The Supreme Court held in 1971 that such evidence deserved to be given great weight and was a strong enough signal of discriminatory employment practices to shift a heavy burden of proof to the employer; the employer would have to show that the hiring and promotion practices producing the stratified result were based on business necessity. Last year the new Reagan majority on the court weakened that requirement. The current bill would rightly strengthen it again.
The business groups and others fighting the legislation say it has been overwritten to the point that no employment practice failing to produce proportional results in hiring or promotion would be safe in court. From this they contend that businesses seeking to protect themselves from discrimination suits would have no choice but to resort to tacit quotas.
But that's a vast exaggeration of what this relatively modest bill would do. The proposed new language would no more lead to quotas than did the carefully balanced court decision of 18 years' standing that it would replace. This has not been a fight about quotas, but for the most part a fight between equal-employment plaintiffs and defense attorneys for marginal tactical advantage in future lawsuits.
Once in a while as they have struggled, the adversaries have stepped outside this narrow band to touch on broader issues better left alone. The administration thus proposed at one point that an employment practice be allowed to stand, no matter what its effect, if it was adopted for "legitimate" community or customer-relations purposes. That seemed to suggest an employer could avoid a hiring or promotion decision on grounds that it would offend community or customer tastes; the community would be given a veto over the law. The country fought that issue out long ago. The administration subsequently said that wasn't what it had meant. We truly hope so.
The president's advisers have this one wrong. He should sign the modest bill and get this artificial and unnecessary fight behind him.