Government officials agreed yesterday that the Supreme Courts ruling in the Allan Bakke case would not deter their efforts to enforce federal affirmative action standards.
The Justice Department's top civil rights enforcement official, Assistant Attorney General Drew Days III, told a news conference he was optimistic that the decision would not upset the federal government's affirmative action programs and urged business "not to wait to be sued" before taking positive steps.
"I think desegregation in the employment area dealing with past discrimination is so vital to this country that business ought to 'cost it out' and move forward," Days said.
A sharply divided Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the principle of affirmative action, but struck down a rigid quota system that Bakke, a 38-year-old white engineer, said had kept him out of medical school at the University of California's Davis campus.
But Days said he had found nothing in the Bakke decision to make him think there was "hostility" by the court to even such programs as one requiring that 10 percent of federal public works contracts be set aside for minority firms.
Day's interpretation supported Eleanor Holmes Norton, head of the government's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who had said earlier "None of us believes the decision makes us proceed any differently today than we did yesterday."
While warning that it would take time to assess the full message of Bakke, other officials also said they believe most current affirmative action programs meet the standards establisher by the Supreme Court and they expect no major changes in their agencies.
"As Attorney General [Griffin] Bell said, the court did not alter the government's concept of affirmative action in equal opportunity programs," Donald E. Elisburg, the Labor Department's assistant secretary for employment standards, said in a statement.
"We intend to continue pursuing our program of vigorous enforcement of equal employment opportunity for all persons."
The federal government is involved in two kinds of affirmative action programs - those mandated because of a finding of past discrimination and those instituted voluntarily. The Bakke decision deals only with the latter.
Voluntary programs are usually initiated by schools and companies so they can qualify for federal grants or contracts.
Officials indicated yesterday that while these voluntary programs establish affirmative action goals in order to remedy underrepresentation by minorities, the programs are conducted in accord with the general principles outlined in Bakke.
For instance, schools and businesses with more than 50 employes and more than $50,000 in government contracts must develop written affirmative action plans for hiring.
"The contractor establishes the goals, and we would expect him to work seriously towards the goals, but certainly they aren't fixed and rigid like the medical school admissions in Bakke," explained an official in the employment standards administration.
Ralph Perrotta, executive director of the National Italian-American Foundation, yesterday injected another consideration into the Bakke issue: will groups not traditionally thought of as disadvantaged minorities now be able to get protection?
"Justice Powell specifically referred to Italian-Americans," Perrotta noted. "I think that with Bakke, affirmative action will be opened up to a lot of other groups that have not benefited by it before."
Powell's opinion expressed the view that "the file of a particular black applicant may be examined for his potential contribution to diversity without the factor of race being decisive when compared, for example, with that of an applicant identified as an Italian-American if the latter is thought to exhibit qualities more likely to promote beneficial education pluralism."
Powell had previously said a candidate for admission might receive "pulses" because of his race or other special characteristics.
Perrotta said his group would contact Joseph A. Califano Jr., secretary of health, education and welfare to urge that the guidelines for the civil rights act be revised to take into account Powell's view of the significance of ethnic diversity.