My colleague, James Q. Wilson ["Equal Merit, Equal Opportunity" March 4], in seeking to delineate the proper boundary between affirmative action and merit, goes further than the typical neoconservative intellectual in granting a modicum of historical and moral validity to affirmative action -- though not, alas, quite far enough. While admitting the illegitimacy of the constraints endured by Afro-Americans since the founding of the republic -- the constraints of chattel slavery and the pernicious victimization of racism since the end of Reconstruction -- he defines only a limited sphere within which race is valid as a compensatory device. He uses the analogy of the use of ethnicity in constructing electoral slates in American politics, and suggests that this use is warranted because the purpose of government are broader than a mere search for the most competent governors.

But had Wilson carried his analogy with electoral politics one step further, he might have extended his notion of the legitimate use of race as a compensatory device. For electoral politics in cities, states and congressional constituencies also involves the control of extensive resources and benefits -- patronage -- that, through sustained political control, have been skewed for long periods in favor of specific ethnic or other interest groups. For over a century, this has amounted de facto to a form of affirmative action (for Irish Americans, Anglo-Protestants, Italians, Jews, Poles, etc.) though it was never labeled as such. The same holds for many interest groups -- veterans, tobacco farmers, defense contractors, dariy farmers, construction contractors, etc. -- who, through sustained political efficacy, by means fair and foul, have skewed disproportionately in their favor the distribution of massive social resources and benefits.

The analogy of this process with affirmative action is, I think, patently apparent, but Wilson skirts it. The only reasonable ground Wilson might have for objection to this analogy, and its status as a functional equivalent of affirmative action, is that the skewing of the distribution of social resources via electoral politics does not occur through formalized procedures that mandate categorical recipients of government-distributed benefits. But the explanation of this difference is hardly a mystery -- past customs, laws and practices excluded blacks from the electoral politics that other groups used to skew social resources in their direction. Thus, when the civil rights legislation and federal practices of the 1960s evolved, it was a reasonable use of race as a compensatory device to mandate Afro-Americans as categorical recipients for a certain range of social resources.

I fault Wilson's argument in yet another way. "Affirmative action," he claims, "is often thought of as a form of restitution, but those who pay are not those responsible for the earlier evil." This is wrong. No serious lawyer or political analyst would apply this formulation to, say indemnities imposed on the German state for the destruction of property and lives during World War II, or to damaged imposed by an American court on a chemical corporation for illegally contaminating the drinking water or housing sites of a community. Successor politicians to the German state -- while not having committed the destructive acts -- and the new executives and stockholders of the contaminating corporation -- while not themselves the contaminators -- are both liable in international and civil law to acknowledge restitution. Justices Brennan and Marshall, while as prone as any of us to error, were surely on solid legal (and moral) ground in the reasoning they adduced in the Bakke case, just as affirmative action policies that employ race (or sex) as a compensatory device in the allocation of social resources are premised on solid legal (and moral) ground.

I am less inclined, however, to fault Wilson's additional argument against affirmative action -- namely, in areas where the norms and criteria of merit are clearly fundamental, affirmative action is reduced in legitimacy or, for Wilson, is altogether invalid and unfair. But Wilson's argument on this point does suffer from poorly delineated distinctions. Thus, while I agree that no advanced industrial society can be served "by a 'representative' collection of brain suregeons, or naval aviators, or physicians . . .," it is nonetheless possible to interpret meritocratic criteria broadly rather than rigidly. After all, the training of professions and skilled occupations in American higher educational institutions varies greatly in regard to meritocratic quality.

My point is that, for better or worse, meritocratic criteria are more often than not relative -- not absolute . Only in the top-ranking institutions of professional training and work is the absolute rendering of meritocratic criteria realistically pursued, though again never perfectly realized. To this degree, then, I concur with Wilson's claim that no advanced society like ours can be served "by a 'representative' collection of brain surgeons, or naval aviators, or physicians."

I also believe that the vast majority of Afro-Americans concur with this position. College-trained blacks in particular have a vested interest in protecting the sanctity of meritocratic criteria, while at the same time accepting the validity of affirmative action practices that employ race (or sex) as a compensatory device. Simple-minded dismissal of merit by blacks is a disservice to all blacks.

While neoconservatives like Wilson are correct in cautioning government and private institutions about the possible dangers that inevitably surround the application of affirmative action policies, they are nonetheless mistaken in claiming that these dangers are avoidable only by scuttling affirmative action, now that constitutional rights to equal opportunity are mandated. It is simply naive to assume the racist constraints on equal opportunity for blacks -- or sexist constraints on equal opportunity for women -- run no deeper than the Constitution and statutory laws. Blacks and their white allies -- among both Democrats and Republicans -- know that this is a misconstruing of the victimizing legacy of slavery and racism.