Just 16 months after his appointment as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Gilbert Casellas is an expert on how the nation has splintered politically over questions of race and sex discrimination.

Casellas, 43, presides over an agency that's supposed to enforce myriad anti-discrimination laws, but Americans are deeply divided over what, if anything, should or can be done about discrimination. Some argue that it is no longer a problem.

Those conflicting feelings about the EEOC's mission and effectiveness are reflected by the nation's leaders. Ca\sellas has faced an often-hostile Congress. And while White House officials say they think he is doing a good job, Casellas said he has not met privately with the president since his confirmation nor has the White House returned his telephone calls.

"Nobody gives a crap about us," Ca\sellas said.

His frustration has grown despite good reviews from lawyers for employers and civil rights activists alike about Casellas's work. Both praise the former trial attorney from Philadelphia for his openness and success at rebuilding the agency, which is facing a mountainous backlog of work, a limited budget and an entrenched and sometimes hostile bureaucracy.

"Personally I think he's very impressive," said Douglas McDowell, general counsel of the Equal Employment Advisory Council, which advises more than 300 of the nation's largest employers on EEOC issues. "He's done a lot to improve morale at the EEOC. He's not hunkering down and hiding behind the backlog of work. A very impressive man."

Casellas "has the world's hardest job," said R. Gaull Silberman, a Republican and former EEOC commissioner. She said the agency is charged with eradicating discrimination, which, in her opinion, is "a mission impossible."

Nancy Kreiter, research director of Chicago-based Women Employed, a women's job-training and advocacy organization, said she believes Casellas's frustration mirrors the feelings of many now in the civil rights community. "Everybody working on civil rights has a siege mentality," Kreiter said.

The EEOC, a bipartisan agency, last year received about 88,000 complaints of illegal discrimination based on race, gender, national origin, religion, age or disability. That's up about 42 percent from the 62,000 complaints registered in 1990, in part because Congress added disability discrimination cases to the EEOC's responsibilities in 1992.

The agency's $233 million budget, however, was not increased to handle the growing caseload. The average EEOC investigator handled 123 cases at a time last year, more than double the average of about 55 in 1990. It can take an agency lawyer a year or more to get to a case.

This backlog ends up affecting employers and employees nationwide because the agency essentially serves as a clearinghouse for discrimination complaints. Everyone who brings such a charge is required by law to file a complaint with the EEOC, which must either dismiss, settle, pursue or pass on the case. People are prevented from taking their grievance to a court until the EEOC grants them a right-to-sue letter that allows them to proceed on their own or until the EEOC decides to sue on their behalf.

The agency, which is intended to expedite disputes, in too many cases instead serves as a bottleneck, critics said.

Among the thousands awaiting action by the EEOC are several complaints alleging sex, race, disability or age discrimination at The Washington Post, including a class-action complaint by the Newspaper Guild, which represents many newsroom employees.

The partial government shutdowns this winter only made things worse, Casellas said. He thought he had succeeded in whittling away some of the backlog, but saw it build right back up again when the government shut down and 90 percent of the agency's 2,700-person staff was furloughed, he said.

"I slept like a baby during the furlough," Casellas said at a recent commission meeting. "I woke up crying every two hours."

Casellas came to the EEOC after what he calls a "cushy" stint as general counsel for the Air Force in late 1993 and early 1994. Part of Casellas's frustration now stems from the contrast with that earlier position, where, as part of the generously-funded Defense Department, money was seldom a problem.

"I didn't have any budget issues then," he said. "There was no issue of having computers, for example. We took things for granted."

But Casellas, who is of Puerto Rican and Cuban descent, said he was excited by the challenge of the job at the EEOC when he was recruited for it by the White House. Although he had never practiced employment law and was not a civil rights activist, Casellas had felt discrimination personally as a child in Tampa when he was limited to swimming at the "colored" beach and barred from the Ybor City Boys Club because of his brown skin.

"I feel passionate about it -- certainly more passionate about it than I feel about planes," Casellas said, though he added, with a laugh, "although of course it's fun to watch them take off."

Adding to Casellas's problems is an unprecedented public relations attack by a private company that the agency is investigating, the restaurant chain Hooters, which hires only young women to serve food. Although many employment lawyers said the case raises important questions on gender discrimination, some in Congress have harshly criticized the agency and no administration official has come to the EEOC's defense.

The dispute underscores the agency's difficult position as a lightning rod for the ongoing national debate on discrimination. These issues look different to people depending on their perspective. For example, studies show that white men continue to dominate the top posts in most industries. While some organizations' efforts to aggressively recruit women and minorities have succeeded in opening up jobs to a more diverse group of workers, white men who might previously have gotten those jobs have become frustrated and claim reverse discrimination. Another case in point: One letter criticizing the EEOC's investigation of Hooters came from an organization that lobbies on behalf of cerebral palsy victims. They believe the Hooters case is insignificant and distracts from work on behalf of the disabled. Another critical letter came from an equal opportunity officer employed by another federal government agency who thought the EEOC should be concentrating more on racial inequities.

Sometimes the debate over discrimination isn't so reasoned, Colin Ferguson, the Jamaican immigrant who in 1993 shot and killed six people on a Long Island commuter train, had previously terrorized an EEOC office in New York, requiring the EEOC to bring in armed guards to protect its employees.

In the past year and a half, Casellas and agency commissioners have taken action on several fronts. They are pushing for alternative dispute resolution, which would allow some cases to be quickly mediated instead of litigated. They also are processing complaints differently so that cases that appear frivolous -- about 20 percent of those filed -- are quickly discarded rather than adding to the logjam, Casellas said.

Casellas also has cut costs where he can. To free up money for the field offices, some of which he said do not have adequate computers to process paperwork and lawsuits efficiently, Casellas has given up some of his personal budget. Although he oversees 50 field offices nationwide, his personal travel budget is only $2,500 a year. By contrast, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt oversees only 15 field offices, but spent about $34,000 on travel last year. National Labor Relations Board Chairman William B. Gould IV heads 52 field offices and spent about $9,266 traveling last year.

Casellas also cut his personal staff, hiring only 12 people instead of the 24 positions he is allotted. "I wanted to send the message I knew we had no resources out in the field," Casellas said. "I knew they were making sacrifices, so it didn't seem right to have {about} 20 people on my personal staff."

Yet those kinds of decisions ultimately take a toll, Casellas said, because it leaves him scrambling to do work that his predecessors delegated to their assistants.

When Casellas accepted the job, he knew it wouldn't be easy. He recalled in a recent speech that he got a congratulatory note from his hometown minister when he took over in October 1994. "Advocating equal opportunity in the current climate takes much faith and fortitude," the minister wrote, noting that he would be praying for Casellas.

Casellas said his wife, Ada, two weeks ago told him she thought he should seek out an executive recruiter to begin looking for another job because he seems so unhappy. But Washington insiders have told him to hang on, Casellas said, because they expect Clinton to be reelected, and because the president has been distracted by the budget fight.

Seated before a computer screen in his office that flashes the words "This Too Shall Pass!," Casellas said he expects to stick it out. "I wouldn't want to walk away from the challenge," he said.

White House senior adviser George Stephanopoulos said he and others were unaware of dissatisfaction by Casellas and regret it. "I am sorry he feels that way," Stephanopoulos said, adding that Clinton thinks "he has done a great job and I personally valued his work on affirmative action."

Still, Casellas said, "it would be nice" if the White House returned his calls.