Ben Gilbert is mid-60ish, well-educated, Jewish, and he wanted to talk about quotas. It was because of quotas, he recalled, that, in the 1930s, he "didn't even consider med school or law school." He has no idea whether he would have been attracted to either of those fields--he achieved major success as a newspaper editor and later as a D.C. government executive. But his memory is still vivid of the sense of limited opportunity in those quota-restricted days.

So naturally, like the American Jewish Committee, he opposes affirmative-action "quotas" now for blacks and other minorities; right? Wrong. "Just this morning, I was reading a magazine piece in which Richard Pryor said that every time he sees a movie without any blacks in it, he wonders why nobody thought about it. Well, the answer is easy. Nobody thought about it because they've been institutionally conditioned not to think about it."

And there you have the most persuasive argument for affirmative action with a number-based test. It isn't that most white people don't like blacks, or think them congenitally incompetent, or go looking for ways to discriminate against them. It is that so many white people in position to affect the lives of black people simply don't think about them--are institutionally conditioned not to think about them --at least in terms of talent and potential.

The value of affirmative action, with a numbers- based test, is that it forces white employers to think about blacks. As with country clubs, professional associations and other white-men-only groups, business and government executives who are forced to think about the excluded groups seldom have trouble finding appropriate candidates. Absent outside pressure, restrictive agencies, associations and businesses tend to go on reproducing themselves. That, in large measure, is the definition of institutional racism.

There are two key arguments on the other side. The first is that affirmative action of the goals-and-timetables variety forces the hiring of incompetent minorities --as though an employer under an affirmative action plan simply goes into the street to herd in the appropriate numbers of the appropriate categories of people, regardless of their skills. What seems more logical is that an employer under pressure to hire minorities will use his resources and imagination to find ways to hire the competent ones that manifestly do exist. The evidence is that that is precisely what is happening.

The other argument, which comes principally from the Jewish leadership, is that numbers-based affirmative action constitutes quotas and ought to be opposed on that ground. Gilbert, who now works as a consultant, understands that argument and disagrees with it. "The most unfortunate thing about this argument over quotas between blacks and Jews is that it is distracting public dialogue from the pervasiveness of institutional racism, which remains the real problem. It pains me that we may not be able to deal with the distinction between goals and timetables and restrictive quotas until the generation of Jews who experienced quotas of the negative sort have moved out of the conversation."