RICHMOND, Va. -- Here in the cradle of the Confederacy, black-owned construction companies used to find city contracts scarce as summer snow. So the City Council decided to do something about it.
Following an example set by the federal government, the council adopted a law guaranteeing minorities 30 percent of the city's construction contracts -- compared with the fraction of a percentage point they had obtained before.
Then the lawsuits began. Finally, in 1989, the Supreme Court threw the statute out, contending that the city had failed to find "identified discrimination" to "justify a rigid racial quota." Today, Richmond's black contractors secure between 6 percent and 15 percent -- depending on whose numbers you believe -- of city contracts.
"Many of them are struggling mightily; some of them have gone (( out of business," said Councilman Chuck Richardson. One lesson from Richmond's experience, he said, is that "people don't want to give the minorities a chance unless the law says they have to."
If there ever was a time when affirmative action was beyond challenge, that time appears to be long past. Today, efforts to combat racial discrimination through quotas, special preferences and other approaches appear to be under attack as never before.
"In one sense, it's a debate over whether minorities in this country have achieved full equality or, as many of us would suggest, there's still a long way to go," said Representative John Lewis, D-Ga., who was active in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
In Washington, the nation's elected leaders are embroiled in a bitter dispute over civil rights legislation that President Bush contends is nothing so much as a "quota" bill. That charge has resonated with a singular intensity, as white wage-earners, grappling with the unsteadying effects of an anemic economy, become unwilling to sacrifice jobs and promotions in the name of racial equality.
"Of course, slavery was wrong, and what we did to the black people in this country was a sin," said a supervisor at one Richmond construction firm. "But I wasn't here 150 years ago, and I've got a family to feed today. Why should my family pay for wrongs committed by others?"
Those sentiments are heard everywhere. Communities such as Baltimore, which has ignored much of the current furor, are, increasingly, the exception. In Atlanta, Boston and Chicago -- places where racial tensions have long been the stuff of life -- talk-radio airwaves are clogged with indignant protests over racial and sexual hiring preferences.
Most of those protests are from males -- presumably whites. Yet, with greater frequency, their voices are being joined by those of Asians, Jews and others disproportionately represented in selective schools and upper-level jobs: They fear that their status will be threatened if institutions consider proportional representation alongside education and accomplishment.
"Quota-bashing is in for the '90s," said Richard Schell, an employee at one Chicago-area radio station.
More striking is the degree to which that kind of animosity appears to have filtered into regions of the country that have prided themselves on racial tolerance.
"There's a lot of anger directed toward [affirmative action]," said Susan Brink, a San Francisco social worker who has spent the last 12 months working with unemployed laborers. "[People] think of it as a luxury we can't afford when the economy's as bad as it is."
That anger has surfaced in some odd places, suggesting that affirmative action may be the scapegoat for a generally bleak economic landscape that ignores racial boundaries.
The number of blacks residing in the northern Minnesota congressional district of Representative Vin Weber, for instance, negligible.
"I've got the whitest district in the country," he said. Nevertheless, he often hears complaints from constituents that better-qualified whites have been denied promotions, or jobs, in the name of affirmative action.
"There are hardly any blacks in my district, but they [whites] think they're being hurt by affirmative action," he said, with obvious amazement. "It's just a feeling in the air. If it's that strong in my district, imagine what it's like in the rest of the country."
Alan L. Keyes, a prominent black Republican who ran an unsuccessful Senate campaign in Maryland in 1988, contends that there is a compelling need for "affirmative action, rightly understood."
But Mr. Keyes says that the preferred form of affirmative action -- organized efforts by companies and universities, for example, to seek out and educate minority prospects -- is usually commingled with a less desirable and, he insists, ultimately destructive willingness to allow lower minority standards.
"It demeans the beneficiaries of these efforts," he said, reinforcing a sense of victimization that encourages minorities to blame problems on whites, rather than to seek their own solutions. "Quotas hurt blacks and other minorities far more than they help."
That view is vigorously contested by others who argue that affirmative action -- whether by quota or by other means -- does provide opportunities for self-betterment that would otherwise be unattainable.
Programs such as Richmond's "helped to build an entrepreneurial class in the black and minority community," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, formerly the head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and now Washington's non-voting delegate to Congress.
"Affirmative action has worked," said Billy Tidwell, research director for the National Urban League.
Yet the successes of affirmative action, Dr. Tidwell noted, have been maddeningly selective.
"The studies show that employment discrimination indeed continues to be a serious problem," said Dr. Tidwell.
Though some factions might disagree with Dr. Tidwell, he would find little argument from most policy-makers in Washington. Nevertheless, it is those policy-makers who are tangled in the fiercest argument over what to do next.
At the center of the dispute is the concept of quotas, which Democrats and Republicans alike purport to eschew. Earlier this month, the House adopted a Democratic bill to overturn five key 1989 Supreme Court decisions that narrowed the ability of discrimination victims to sue. The Senate is preparing to act on its version.
In an effort to mollify Republican critics of their bill, the Democrats included language banning the use of quotas -- a concession GOP critics dismiss as meaningless. This year, however, the Democrats' bill would also banish the practice of "race-norming," common in many states, in which scores on employment-aptitude tests are ranked on different racial curves.
"Here's what race-norming is like: It's like having a high school graduation with a white valedictorian, a black valedictorian, a Hispanic valedictorian and an Asian valedictorian," said William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
"In the '50s and '60s, most Americans found the kind of discrimination and segregation pervasive then to be outrageous, and so you had the successes of the civil rights movement. Today, Americans find things like race-norming to be outrageous, and that's why you see the furor that you see," said Schneider.
Many civil rights advocates are hard pressed to defend techniques such as race-norming.
"It's a lazy person's solution," conceded Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, who pointed out that it was first put into practice in 1981 by the Reagan administration's Justice Department.
If a political consensus has emerged against quotas, no such agreement exists on the best alternative to redress the sins of the past.
In Richmond, a city commission is studying ways to write a new affirmative action law governing city contracts that will survive judicial scrutiny. But, said commission member Gary C. Leedes, a law professor at the University of Richmond, "The Supreme Court has set a very tough test for us to meet."
It's a test that has bred no small amount of cynicism among Richmond's black contractors.
"Some majority firms just don't want to do business with the minority firms," said Langston Davis, owner of the city's largest minority-led construction firm. "Doesn't matter what the Supreme Court says, you just can't get around that."