A national coalition of black leaders yesterday accused Sears, Roebuck and Co. of mounting a back door attack on affirmative action hiring programs.

The group, the Black Leadership Forum, said Sears' recent lawsuit alleging that government policies actually foster hiring discrimination is based on "dubious assumptions" and is "another example of the effort to strengthen the forces that oppose affirmative action."

"Sears asks us to believe that except for flaws in government policies, it would have a [racially and sexually] balanced workforce," the black leaders said in a joint statement.

"However, we must ask in reply whether Sears' own policies have not made some contribution to race and sex imbalances in its own ranks," the leaders said.

Sears officials have vigorously denied that their suit, filed Jan. 24, is designed to impede efforts to increase the hiring of women and minorities within its ranks or elsewhere.

However, Black Leadership Forum member the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who is also president of Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), complained that the suit has already attracted the support of right-wing forces opposed to affirmative action programs.

"Sears has dropped a legal bomb in our community, and the danger lies as much in the fallout as it does in the initial impact," Jackson said. "Sears, by making this a class-action suit, has joined with it many retailers and contractors who have horrible records for compliance with any law providing for equal opportunity," he charged.

Jackson said the suit caught the nation's black leaders by surprise.

"We asked Sears' officials why they didn't contact us before they filed the suit," Jackson said, pointing out that the ostensible purpose of the Sears action is to correct federal laws that allegedly created discriminatory hiring practices. "The Sears people told us that they did not want to telegraph their moves," he said.

Now, Jackson said, the black leaders do not want to telegraph their moves in retaliation. For example, asked if the leadership forum was considering calling a black boycott of Sears stores, Jackson said: "Such an action would be premature at this point."

Asked if that meant no boycott action was under consideration Jackson said: "We have always been methodical in our confrontations... First, we have to do our research. Then we have to try to educate our people and our adversary. Then we negotiate. Depending on what happens, we may or may not demonstrate."

Neither Jackson nor any other of the black leaders present at yesterday's leadership forum press conference offered any timetable for the research, education and negotiation process. However, they all urged the nation's largest retail firm to withdraw its suit "on moral, legal and economic grounds."

Besides PUSH, other black groups criticizing Sears included the National Urban League, the National Council of Negro Women and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.