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Affirmative Action 101: What the Lingo Means

WHAT is affirmative action, anyway? As the nation debates this highly charged issue, many terms and phrases are bandied about with a lack of precision: Quotas. Set-asides. Racial and gender preferences. Reverse discrimination.

Depending on the wording of questions, opinion polls either show strong support for affirmative action or call for its abolition.

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To advocates, affirmative action means ensuring equal opportunity for all in education and employment. To critics, it can mean reverse discrimination, and for some beneficiaries, a feeling of stigma over being categorized as ''disadvantaged'' (read: inferior).

Further supercharging the debate is California's landmark decision last week to drop race- and gender-based admissions programs in the state university system and replace them with an admissions plan based on socio-economic factors. That may jeopardize $2.5 billion in federal aid to the university system. At the same time, some California officials are convinced that diversity can still be maintained, given that many blacks and Latinos come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

IN Washington, the battle lines were drawn by President Clinton's ringing endorsement of affirmative action last week. Senate majority leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole (R) of Kansas will introduce legislation this week to bar programs using quotas, set-asides, and other ''preferences.''

But what do these terms really mean?

A footnote in the 100-page presidential report on affirmative action, issued last week, sums up the problem: '''Affirmative action' enjoys no clear and widely shared definition.''

An affirmative-action lexicon follows:

Quota. The report to the president doesn't define it, but according to Leroy Clark, a law professor at Catholic University in Washington, ''a quota is a rigid numerical requirement, which is totally unresponsive to supply or merit.'' Critics of affirmative action say that some government programs, though not called quotas, are in effect quotas. ''Bids for federal contracts are accepted only if 10 percent of the work is given to 'minority business enterprises.' This is a quota!'' said Jorge Amselle, a policy analyst at the Center for Equal Opportunity.

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Goals and timetables. This is how the federal government labels programs that aim for a specific participation by minorities and women. A contractor's failure to reach the ''numerical benchmark'' does not mean a failure to fulfill the executive order governing federal contractors. The problem comes when a contractor fails ''to make a good faith effort'' to reach a goal, the report states.

Set-asides. The report to the president categorizes few programs as ''set-asides,'' which some affirmative-action critics view simply as quotas. One Pentagon practice, called ''rule-of-two set-asides,'' authorizes contracting officers to limit bidding on a contract to ''small disadvantaged firms'' if there are two or more such firms bidding and the prevailing bid will be within 10 percent of the fair market price, the report says.

Preferences. This term has no formal legal meaning but encompasses a wide variety of government programs that are designed to encourage greater minority and women's participation. The recently decided Supreme Court case Adarand Constructors v. Pena involved a so-called preference program in which a contractor would receive a payment for hiring a certain amount of women- or minority-owned subcontractors. The payment is meant to compensate the main contractor for the added expense of training the minority subcontractor.

Reverse discrimination. This is usually when a woman or minority is hired over a white male because of race or gender. ''Affirmative action, when done right, is not reverse discrimination,'' says the report. But affirmative action isn't always ''done right.'' Some supervisors, not eager for a battle over racial or gender matters, hire to meet a goal as if it were a quota, say even supporters of affirmative action. The president has promised to weed out such practices.

''Some employers practice reverse discrimination - or hire people who are unqualified - just to show affirmative action doesn't work,'' says Mary Gray, a law professor at American University in Washington.

Another source of confusion over intent and practice of affirmative action is educational vs. employment affirmative action, says Professor Clark. In the educational sphere, universities offer admission to some less-qualified minority candidates before more-qualified whites, a practice that is not supposed to happen in the workplace.

''Schools can repair deficiencies [in students] without lowering the quality of the school,'' Clark says, ''while in the workplace, hiring less-qualified workers would lower the quality of the business.''

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