NO VERBAL finesse will close the gap between those who generally support racial quotas and those who don't. No sleight of hand will unite the people who believe that affirmative action should require "best efforts" only and those who insist that it must include both a numerical measure of progress and a reformulation of standards if that is necessary. And no soothing dialogue will reconcile the passions of the patient with those whose patience is exhausted. Waiting is hard. Changing is hard. So the increasingly acrimonious argument about means, even among those with a shared ultimate goal, will be hard to resolve.

Many supporters of numerical targets and affirmative action are unimpressed with the discomfort others feel about such matters. They are unimpressed as a moral matter, and perhaps unshaken as a political matter with the depth and pervasiveness of the misgivings in many quarters. Some blacks unfairly dismiss the objections as racist or insensitive. But that broad indictment is inaccurate, if racism means racially motivated prejudice and animus. The more common motivation is a sense that quotas are unfair and violate principles of merit to which the objectors are devoted. True, this agressive notion of fairness was sorely lacking for many generations when the victims were black, not white. And true, principles of merit are sometimes overstated and often poorly practiced, through biased measurements and unchecked discretion. But the fact remains that motives and sensibilities in this area are complicated beyond simple moral labels.

There is a similar story on the other side. Critics of numerical measures and aggressive affirmative action are largely deaf to impatient cries, and unpersuaded by arguments that progress and its pace must be measured. But over three decades, racial progress was energized by formal, often legal, requirements invoked because personal good will had been wanting for centuries. Someone whose political consciousness was shaped by that experience may well think that trusting the good faith of white employers as a class is foolish. So the supporters, while in important respects insensitive to the costs of actions they favor, have an important message about history and practicality.

The sharpness of the public and private discussions will abate only if each side listens for the merit embedded in the arguments of the other, and resists the urge to characterize differences in stark and unforgiving moral terms. And each must recognize the need to accommodate. Those who oppose hiring quotas should acknowledge that a system of best efforts has to be subject to monitoring, and that could mean accepting burdensome paper work and public scrutiny in order to demonstra that the effort is serious. Those who favor more stringent measures must agree that so-called "remedies" which create a class of identifiable new victims are as wrong as no "remedies" at all.