The Reagan administration, despite the complaints from the civil-rights leadership, can be racially sensitive. It sometimes shows signs of understanding the importance of integration and, at least on occasion, manifests a willingness to correct even those things that, quite inadvertently, could give the impression of racial unfairness.
No, there has not been a new policy statement on tax exemptions for Bob Jones University or a revolt in the office of the assistant attorney general for civil rights. I'm talking about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and in case you missed the story, I'd better start from the beginning.
You know, of course, about last weekend's deliberate crash of a jetliner in the California desert, an experiment to test the effectiveness of a fuel additive that is supposed to make plane crashes more survivable.
Most of the press accounts focused on the failure of the test. The plane, operated by remote control, didn't crash quite as squarely as NASA officials had hoped, and the antimisting kerosene fuel, which was supposed to prevent the development of deadly "secondary fires," didn't.
In the mind-bending words of one federal official at the scene, "There may not have been much flame, but there was one hell of a fire."
But you know that story. The one you may have missed, although some 400 journalists were on hand, appeared in a four-paragraph piece on an inside page of the Sunday New York Times.
As part of the test, the plane was to carry 75 life-like dummies, made, as it turned out, by two different manufacturers. The first batch, which technicians immediately began strapping in, starting at the front of the plane, were all white. The second, later-arriving batch, all black, were strapped into the remaining, rearward, seats. But then an alert official recognized what erroneous conclusions might be reached if photographs of the plane's interior were made public, so he or.
"We switched," NASA spokesman Larry King told The Times, "because of a potential perception. We don't want any perception like that. The orginal configuration was inadvertent."
It was an extraordinary decision for an administration that has been accused of opposing affirmative action. It showed a sensitivity to the importance not just of fairness but of the appearance of fairness. And it showed uncommon courage. NASA did the right thing, undeterred by the likelihood that lawyers for the white dummies (who, after all, were first on board) might charge that the re-seating was a form of reverse discrimination.
A less-sensitive agency might have gotten bogged down in considerations o relative merit. But NASA recognized that all the dummies were fully qualified, or they wouldn't have been on the plane at all.
It was, in short, the approach that the civil- rights leadership has insisted on all along, only to be accused of favoring "quotas."
Indeed, the only conceivable criticism of the NASA action is that the interests of Asians, Hispanics and women were not taken into account. No doubt this oversight will be remedied in future test crashes.
There was no immediate indication whether the principle behind the NASA seating plan will become general throughout the government, but there is comfort in the fact that at least one federal agency takes at least one truth to be self-evident: that all dummies are created equal.