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Race: Whose Remedies?

''What about the color problem?" the British correspondent was asked after many years in India. His wry reply: "Do you mean colored brown or colored pink?"

Whose problem is it anyway? This question arises in efforts to solve problems of racial and ethnic relations around the world, and there are no more important problems than these. Even in Asia, contrary to popular perception, "multicultural" societies are more the norm than the exception, according to the World Conference on Remedies to Racial and Ethnic Economic Inequality earlier this year. In the midst of all the progress and backsliding, the conference acknowledged that "any discussion of eliminating inequality must begin with an examination of the different facets and nature of racism and discrimination throughout the world."

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In multi-everything America, the trend is to reduce government's role as problem solver without removing legal protections against discrimination built up over the past 30 years. Private efforts by individuals and institutions become ever more necessary, as does the sharing of solutions within and among nations.

So it seems appropriate that last spring's world conference on remedies was held in the US heartland at the University of Minnesota. And, for example, an expert on promoting ethnic harmony in Africa (Cameroon) led a workshop on achieving "safety, understanding, and community building in American cities." Religious leaders discussed the role of their different faiths and congregations in eliminating discrimination and promoting understanding in their communities. Other international participants told how traditionally disadvantaged peoples can make use of information technology and grow along with it.

But the wide horizon's view does not relieve a country's citizens from choosing the best means for improvement at every given moment. In the Nov. 5 election, California's Proposition 209 initiative has become the most conspicuous item of choice. In the name of civil rights it prohibits the state from discriminating or giving preference in the operation of public employment, education, or contracting on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin. But civil-rights organizations see it as a disguised blow to civil rights. Bob Dole and the Republican Party platform support it. Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican Colin Powell oppose it.

All can agree with something Mr. Dole said Oct. 28: that "individuals matter more than racial categories." The question is how to be fair to individuals disadvantaged because of the category to which they belong. As Dole said, "The end of quotas does not exhaust our responsibility to equality of opportunity. It only begins it...."

There is a beginning in the White House's new set of criteria: Any federal affirmative action program must be eliminated or reformed if it: (a) creates a quota; (b) creates preferences for unqualified individuals; (c) creates reverse discrimination; or (d) continues even after its equal opportunity purposes have been achieved.

Why then does the president oppose 209? Because he believes it would reduce the opportunity for people to prove they are qualified. That is the opportunity sought by the disadvantaged around the world. As the debate on how to ensure that opportunity continues, the choices made become vital at every level of government, business, and education, as well as at that most important point, the heart and mind of every individual.

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