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Affirmative-Action Politics

WITH his recent executive order to eliminate racial or gender preferences from state hiring and contracting procedures, California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) moved affirmative action even higher on the national agenda.

He evidently hopes this potent issue will boost his presidential chances, just as toughness on illegal immigrants helped him retain the governorship.

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The two issues are somewhat related. Immigrants, legal and illegal, expand that part of the United States population perceived to profit from affirmative action. In this sense, Mr. Wilson is mining the same vein of discontent. This tactic has dangers. It could deepen that discontent - feeding the anger of Americans buffeted by economic and social change. Since he has helped push affirmative action forward, Wilson has a large responsibility for constructively framing the issue.

The governor, who once backed affirmative-action measures as mayor of San Diego, has now concluded they are the products of "misdirected societal guilt." But was it "misdirected," in the wake of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, to take steps to give the promise of equality some tangibility?

Over the past 30 years, affirmative action has evolved. Today's programs go beyond the original legislative purpose of helping black Americans surmount the legacy of slavery and legalized discrimination. Women and other ethnic groups are included. And preferences sometimes extend to people who are solidly middle-class in income and educational background. Should the reach of affirmative action be rethought?

Are there ways to retain much of the current structure of affirmative action while removing more objectionable parts, like numerical quotas and rigid set-asides? The central goal, always, should be to help individuals realize their potential. Efforts to zero in on the educational needs of particularly disadvantaged parts of the population, like inner-city youth, may be the most effective kind of affirmative action.

Fairness, a core American value, is broad enough to embrace both an emphasis on merit and positive efforts to help those still held down by past unfairness.

Wilson and other politicians should look at these dimensions of the issue and not just play it for immediate political gain.

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