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A time for hard questions

If we're lucky, this nation will one day look back and realize that the current animus over quotas and preferences was just growth pain, another phase in our effort to eradicate entrenched discrimination. There is no question that all discrimination must go, but conflict is inevitable because those who regularly feel its sting will never tolerate it as willingly as those who don't. That day could be hastened by wise leadership that would try to educate the public on the history behind such efforts as the civil rights bill. But such leadership does not appear to be forthcoming from President Bush, who continues unabashedly stoking racial fears to gain votes. Nor will equality come through wishful thinking. Still, polls suggest that a majority of white Americans, especially males, believe that fairness in the workplace and elsewhere has largely been achieved, and that traditional victims of discrimination need no more special help from the government.

In other words, the president and the race-baiting faction of his party can only gain from the current division. And since this past week's vote in the House produced no veto-proof majority for the Democrats' civil rights bill, the time has come to ask one crucial question: Is blindly pursuing that measure worth the price of continuing to poison the country's already-strained racial climate?

Since Mr. Bush keeps insisting he wants to sign a bill, the country might be better served by efforts in the Senate to produce a workable compromise. Giving him a chance to veto yet another "quota bill" would only insure an even more divisive 1992presidential campaign; but it would be much harder for him to demagogue on the quota issue if he has signed a bill into law. Such a sincere compromise effort puts the onus on Mr. Bush to prove that he's not content merely to set the American people at each other's throats. So far he doesn't seem willing to stray very far from his own inadequate version of the bill.

Devising such a measure would also mean some hard compromises for Democrats and the civil rights community, but none that should strike at the bill's core intent: to reverse a series of 1989 Supreme Court rulings that made it too hard to fight job discrimination in court. Restoring those pre-1989 safeguards would help women too, but some of the bill's other benefits for women were added in an abortive attempt to win more votes. So there is a certain logic in the proposal by Sen. John Danforth, R-Missouri, to split the measure that passed the House into three separate bills: one reversing the five court decisions, another dealing with cases of unintentional discrimination and a third dealing with damages for victims of sex and religious discrimination. On the other hand, since Mr. Bush has real differences with Democrats in all three categories, that strategy might well wind up just producing three conflicts instead of one. But everything should be on the table.

The point is to move the country away from stalemate and refocus attention on the neglected domestic issues that shortchange blacks and fuel racial tensions. For all their importance, job bias protections are only one front in an ongoing struggle for equality in which the whole nation has a crucial stake. Still left largely unaddressed is the cycle of urban decay, crime, poverty and ignorance that keeps millions from ever becoming competitive enough to make use of such protections.

Mr. Bush simply does not seem up to the task of leading this country through its racial thicket. He thinks that race is just one more political issue to be bandied about, like taxes, rather than something that touches the very core of what we are as a nation. How we handle it will determine, far more than will Soviet missiles, whether we even survive as a country worth living in. If he ever comes to understand this, perhaps he will see the damage his shortsightedness is causing.

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