Monterey, Calif. -- THERE ARE MANY indications that affirmative action may soon provoke what it has never provoked before: a national debate on group preferences that will be so open and contentious that no important politician will be able to avoid a hard yea or nay position.
This has all been started by the threat of another of those California statewide initiatives in which some long-simmering public bitterness explodes onto the ballot and is then argued out in the national village of talk radio.
Next year, Californians are to vote on the appropriateness of preferential treatment by sex, race and ethnic origin as a form of social redress.
What an odd opportunity: to vote in secret on the idea that some citizens should be preferred over others in public employment, contracting and higher education.
I wish my parents had had such a vote back in the 1950s, when I was languishing in a segregated elementary school created by white preferential treatment.
My guess is that Californians will vote as my parents would surely have voted then: against preferences of any kind.
Significantly, most of the new interest in affirmative action seems to be political rather than social.
The buzz is all about how the issue will wedge the Democrats into white male moderates on one flank and minorities and women on the other -- an ugly resegregation of America's "civil rights" party that will make President Clinton even more vulnerable than he already is.
There is little talk about affirmative action as public policy. One reason, I think, is that affirmative action has always been what might be called iconographic public policy -- policy that ostensibly exists to solve a social problem but actually functions as an icon for the self-image people hope to gain by supporting the policy.
From the beginning, affirmative action could be cited as evidence of white social virtue and of emerging black power -- the precise qualities that America's long history of racism had denied to each side.
Had America worked from the 1960s to educate blacks to the same standards as whites, had it truly labored to eradicate discrimination, there would be more virtue and power on both sides of the racial divide today.
The disingenuousness of affirmative action -- born of the black struggle for freedom -- can be seen in two remarkable facts: middle-class white women have benefited from it far more than any other group, and 46 percent of all black children live in poverty.
The perniciousness of an iconographic social policy is that you cannot be against it without seeming to be against what it purports to represent.
The white who argues against affirmative action looks like a racist and the black looks like an Uncle Tom. Iconographic policies perpetuate themselves by hiding behind what they represent.
This is why, after 25 years, affirmative action is one of the least evaluated social policies in American history. The price for accepting its illusion of virtue and power is ignorance.
Not only do we blind ourselves to the workings of a social policy that becomes an icon, but also in search of a flattering self-image we justify the policy by vague ideals like "diversity."
And the emptiness of these ideals makes the policy unaccountable for any result it may have, so it remains an icon whether or not it accomplishes anything in the real world.
Diversity policies -- today's euphemism for affirmative action -- exist in virtually every important institution even though no one really knows what diversity means. Both proportionate and disproportionate representation reflect diversity; integration is one kind of diversity and segregation another.
Here is an idealism that destroys accountability in social policy, and a language of willed ignorance in which the words mean only that the speaker has good intentions.
Still, as much as I loathe affirmative action -- for the indignity and Faustian bargain it presents to minorities, for the hypocrisy and shameless self-congratulation it brings out in its white supporters -- I must admit that it troubles me to see its demise so glibly urged from the political right.
The Republican presidential aspirants are stumbling over one another to condemn it. While they are right to do so -- and right is right even when it is nothing more than right -- there is also the matter of moral authority.
And this is something anyone who wants to dismantle affirmative action will have to earn.
I would ask those who oppose preferences to acknowledge and account for the reality of black alienation. As a black, I still fear discrimination, still have the feeling that it is waiting for me in public America.
Discrimination does not justify preferential treatment, but I want to know that the person who stands with me against preferences understands the problem that inspired them.
To my mind there is only one way to moral authority for those of us who want affirmative action done away with: to ask that discrimination by race, gender or ethnicity be a criminal offense, not just civil.
If someone can go to jail for stealing my car stereo, he ought to do considerably more time for stifling my livelihood and well-being by discriminating against me.
If this means there will be many trials and lawsuits, so be it. When the pressure is put precisely on the evil you want to eradicate, then individuals and institutions will quickly learn not only what discrimination is but also what fairness is -- and fairness is a concept so confused by decades of affirmative action that many now believe it can be reached only through discrimination.
Ending affirmative action must involve more than bringing down an icon. It must also involve an extension of democratic principles to what might be an extreme degree in a racially homogeneous society. But in a society like ours, discrimination is the greatest and most disruptive social evil.
In a multiracial democracy of individuals, you have to make it a felony.
Shelby Steele is author of "The Content of Our Character."