FEDERAL affirmative action - a complex machine of laws and regulations constructed over 30 years - is fast entering an era of overhaul and perhaps inevitable contraction.
Washington's race- and gender-based preference programs had operated relatively quietly, with occasional flashes of opposition, since their beginnings in the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. That's all changed in today's era of resurgent Republicanism.
Recent Supreme Court decisions have put Washington on notice that some preference programs may not pass legal muster. Now President Clinton is set to announce the results of his own review of federal affirmative action, against a background of attacks on preference policies by GOP presidential hopefuls.
When the Clinton administration began its affirmative-action study five months ago, many thought it might serve as a cover for a wholesale retreat from such programs. That no longer appears to be the case. In a scheduled July 19 speech, Clinton is expected to announce changes in some controversial set-aside efforts, while defending affirmative action's basic principles.
''To some degree, what Clinton is setting out to do is to preserve affirmative action as a program,'' says David Bositis, a senior researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which studies race issues.
Clinton fully supports affirmative action and undoubtedly wishes it won't become a more visible national political issue than it already is, judges Mr. Bositis. While public opinion is overwhelmingly anti-affirmative action. ''If it becomes an active issue, it's dead,'' says Bositis, who counts himself an affirmative-action supporter. ''In order to preserve it, things are going to have to be changed.'' Why is affirmative action facing a new era? That's not a question that presents easy answers. To some, politicians such as Gov. Pete Wilson (R) of California and Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas are manipulating the issue to attract right-wing votes and boost their own presidential prospects. To others, it's the result of long-suppressed and legitimate complaints from white males too long subject to reverse discrimination.
''Affirmative action has evolved into a kind of proportional representation,'' says Frederick Lynch, a Claremont McKenna College government professor who has written a book on white males and affirmative action. ''What we are getting is a kind of retribalization of society.''
Those who oppose affirmative action say that among other things the rise of talk radio has given them a loud voice, after years of being ignored by the mainstream media. The 1994 elections also demonstrated their power at the ballot box, they say.
America needs to return to the vision of the colorblind society held out by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. himself, say numerous affirmative action critics. Take Stanley Dea, an Asian American who works for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. Mr. Dea says he has been unfairly demoted and punished for attempting to promote white males over less-qualified minority candidates. He's sued to get his old job back at the WSSC, which maintains water systems in two suburban D.C. counties.
He personally, as a Chinese-American, has hit glass ceilings in his career, ''despite my qualifications.'' But this, he says, has ''made me even more determined than ever to have a race-blind and neutral policy.''
THE goal of affirmative action, he says, is to ''bring as many people to the starting line as possible,'' but to let the winner win the race on his or her own merits. ''I'm opposed to all discrimination. You can't fight discrimination with discrimination,'' Dea says.
But those who strongly defend affirmative action programs often judge their opponents to be disingenuous, or unacquainted with a life of real discrimination. Federal programs which push government contractors to hire minorities, or which set aside a certain portion of federal contracts for minority-owned firms, are needed to counteract the hard fact that in actual practice ''colorblind'' means ''it's OK to only deal with people like us,'' according to preference program proponents.
''Affirmative action, unfortunately, is a scapegoat for failed economic policies which date back to the last 12 to 15 years,'' says J. Clay Smith Jr., a law professor at Howard University. ''The real question for the country is whether goodwill is being eliminated and erased on the excuse that there's not enough to go around.''
Though blacks have made great economic and educational strides since the passage of the landmark civil-rights laws in the early 1960s, many minorities are still forged in the crucible of bad schools and decayed urban life. If you come from this background, simply being dropped on the same ''starting line'' gives you little help, in the view of such advocates as Rev. Jesse Jackson.
That's why Jackson has strongly criticized Clinton for having ''waffled'' on affirmative action and creating a leadership ''vacuum.'' As a result, Jackson may challenge Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
As of this writing, Clinton's affirmative-action review speech was not yet complete. Reportedly, it will focus on broadening ''set-aside'' programs, which give a portion of government contracts to minority firms, by allowing anyone who lives in poor communities to qualify for them.