The civil rights establishment is still shuddering over the leaked recommendation by a Reagan advisory panel that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission be hogtied and brought under control.
The panel headed by J.A. Parker reportedly said that the EEOC has created "a new racism in America in which every individual is judged by race."
It then went on to call for an end to mandatory affirmative action plans and discrimination suits based on statistics rather than solid evidence of bias against particular individuals.
Leaving aside the EEOC's contention that Parker, who is black, is grossly misinformed as to law and court decisions that guide the agency's policies, the leaked report raises a central, though seldom discussed, question regarding the whole concept of racial fairness.
The basic question is whether racial justice in America ought to be judged in terms of groups or of indivduals. Answer that question and you've said a good deal about what sort of country you think America is and ought to become. g
Parker, head of the Lincoln Institute, a Washington-based conservative think tank that deals with black issues, clearly believes that justice is individual -- that fair treatment for particular members of a group adds up to fair treatment for the group.
The civil rights establishment, though it has never fully articulated the view, believes that racism in America is a group phenomenon that calls for group solutions. If you ensure justice for the group, you go a long way toward eliminating discrimination against individual members of the group.
There are solid arguments on both sides.
The group view, the basis for affirmative action programs, holds that since blacks have been discriminated against as a group, justice requires redress as a group.
Thus if an employer has a history of discriminating against blacks and, as a result, has blacks in the upper half of his work force, then it is reasonable to require him to set things right by hiring and upgrading blacks -- no matter if he never discriminated against the particular blacks he subsequently hires and promotes.
The other view would hold that if the employer has discriminated against me, it serves no purpose of justice to require him to hire or promote people who only look like me.
In other words, justice demands that the particular discrimination be identified and corrected. Do that long enough and conscientiously enough and group discrimination will take care of itself.
Neither view is inherently more correct than the other, as Nathan Glazer points out in an interesting piece he wrote two years ago in a British publication call Human Rights.
"I believe the key principle, that does and in fact should determine for a mulit-ethnic state whether it elects the path of group rights or individual rights, is whether it sees the different groups as remaining permanent and distinct constituents of a federated society or whether it sees these groups as ideally integrating into, eventually assimilating into, a common society," Glazer wrote.
"If . . . the model a society has for itself is that it is a confederation of groups, that group membership is central and permanent and that the divisions between groups are such that it is unrealistic or unjust to envisage these group identities weakening in time to be replaced by a common citizenship, then it must take the path of determining what the rights of each group shall be."
An example of this model might be French-and English-speaking Canadians or, more markedly, the situation in Zimbabwe, where a certain proportion of parliamentary seats have been reserved for the white minority on the realistic ground that whites will never be absorbed into the general society.
Americans -- including black American -- are schizophrenic on the point. We believe, on substantial evidence, that blacks are as unlikely to be fully assimilated here as are whites in Zimbabwe. Yet, at the same time, we cling to the American melting-pot ideal that all minorities must eventually become nothing more nor less than full Americans, with the same rights and privileges as any other Americans.
We argue for what amounts to set-asides -- in employment, college seats, Cabinet offices and business opportunities on the ground that they are necessary until blacks are absorbed into the mainstream.
But since we doubt that more than than a timy minority of blacks will ever be mainstreamed, we want the set-asides continued indefinitely: group rights.
At least when we speak as members of the group. For ourselves, as individuals, we covet the satisfaction of knowing we can make it in full, open competition, on personal merit.
Unfortunately, we can't have it both ways.