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COLUMN ONE : Where to Draw the Lines? : Changes in American society make it trickier to define the beneficiaries and goals of affirmative action. Thirty years ago, determining who was a minority was less complex.

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION. Fairness or Favoritism? One in an occasional series


WASHINGTON — Who is a minority?

Today, in an era of affirmative action, when the answer to that question can have an impact on college admissions, jobs, promotions and government contracts, just who should be counted has become an emotion-charged issue.

In this vast and polychromatic nation, the simple question of who is a minority has never had a simple answer. Definitions of what groups make up the minority--and who holds power as part of the majority--have shifted over time.

When affirmative action programs began in the mid-1960s, immigration was low, the population was nearly all white and, in most parts of the country, blacks were the only minority group--most of them with much lower incomes than the average white.

But now, the nation has changed dramatically: There are high levels of immigration, several major racial groups and an expansive minority middle class.

Those changes have heightened and complicated the affirmative action debate. The population of Asian Americans has gone from roughly 1 million in the 1960s to at least 8.5 million. The Latino population has grown from 3.5 million to roughly 23 million. Racial and ethnic groups officially counted as "minorities" make up roughly a third of the U.S. population--up from just over 10% three decades ago.

Since women are included in most such programs, "when you add it all up, about two-thirds of the American population is eligible" for one form of affirmative action or another, said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.).

"That's a lot of minority. And I think what began as an effort to redress the legitimate concerns and needs of African Americans has expanded to other things entirely unexpected."

Even the black population has changed. Once, almost every black American was descended from American slaves. But in New York City, for example, roughly 25% of blacks are immigrants or the children of immigrants--mostly from Africa and the Caribbean, says Harvard sociology professor Mary Waters.

How did the current definitions of "minority" arise?

In the beginning, it wasn't much of an issue and received little debate, according to historians and officials involved in the early policy-making. The focus was on the plight of black Americans. But aware of longstanding discrimination against Puerto Ricans in northeastern cities, Mexican Americans in the Southwest and Chinese and Japanese--primarily in California--lawmakers also sought to protect those groups.

In the early 1960s, federal officials established four categories for equal opportunity programs--"Negroes, Spanish-surnamed, Oriental and Indian." With adjustments to reflect changing fashions in language, those groups remain the basic categories for most affirmative action programs.

The programs vary widely. Set-aside programs, for example, place a share of government contracts in a pool for minority- and female-owned firms or allow those firms to win contracts even when they do not submit the lowest bids. This embodies what most people would consider true "preferences."

Other programs, such as those in most workplaces, do not require that special preference be given to specific groups. They direct companies to count employees by race and sex and to be prepared to justify why numbers differ markedly from percentages in the labor force as a whole.

Defining Questions

Critics insist this also ends up providing preferences. "The burden of explanation is so high that people say: 'Oh, screw it, I'll just hire by the numbers,' " says Harvard Law School's Charles Fried, the Ronald Reagan Administration's chief advocate at the Supreme Court and an adviser to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah).

Supporters, by contrast, argue that without affirmative action, equal opportunity for minorities and women would remain an empty slogan. The people who make most decisions on hiring, firing and promotion are mostly still white men, as the Labor Department's recent "Glass Ceiling" report showed. Unless someone keeps track of the numbers, those men will, perhaps unconsciously, continue to give preference to people who look like them, program backers argue.

Affirmative action programs, under that theory, resemble contact lenses that help correct managers' sometimes faulty vision.

Now, amid increased controversy, policy-makers are grappling with questions of definition:

* How should the nation define the proper beneficiaries of affirmative action programs?

* Should such programs concentrate on groups that have faced discrimination in the past or look primarily at current barriers?

* How much relevance does past discrimination have when considering groups who have only recently arrived? For example, what impact does denial of basic civil rights to Chinese residents of California in the early 20th Century have on Vietnamese immigrants today?

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