I 'M LOOKING for a reason to stop defending affirmative action, and none too soon.
The shock wave that started in California over next year's anti-affirmative action referendum has reached Washington.
On one side, President Clinton faces civil rights leaders demanding unqualified support for the program; on the other, Republicans are eager to use affirmative action as a divisive issue in the 1996 campaign.
The president's position has been made all the more uncomfortable by the declaration by the Democratic senator from Connecticut, Joseph Lieberman, usually an ally, that preferential treatment based on race or sex is "patently unfair."
Perhaps surprisingly, many of the newest soldiers in the fight to end affirmative action are African-Americans. They argue that qualified people have been unfairly cast as incompetent beneficiaries of racial preference.
Such stereotyping is far from a minor problem. My own experiences as an African-American in the work force have shown me that while I have never asked for special privileges my co-workers often believe I have.
When I was looking for a job last spring, three interviewers felt it necessary to tell me that I would get a boost because of racial hiring goals or diversity mandates. Here I was simply hoping I was the best person for the job.
I suffered a deeper emotional wound when I was a reporter at Newsweek. One of my colleagues mentioned that an editor had told an unsuccessful job applicant, "I would have hired you in a minute if you were black."
He said something similar to an employee who was about to be let go -- he would have been kept on, if only . . . . No doubt the editor's words left these people resentful. At the time, I was one of only five black writers and reporters in the entire organization -- out of more than 100.
Given stories like these, why shouldn't we bid affirmative action a graceful goodbye? Because the battle over this issue has obscured the real question facing America: how to ensure that the most qualified candidate for a job receives that job -- period.
The fact is, people of color are still the most likely group to be denied jobs for which they're qualified. In 1990, researchers with the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization, sent blacks and whites with comparable resumes, styles of dress and speaking ability to apply for the same jobs.
The African-American candidates got the job or proceeded to the next hiring level only about 80 percent of the time that the white applicants did.
Yet that's not the picture most of America sees. A 1992 study by People for the American Way, a civil liberties organization, found that young white Americans were more likely to think that they would be victims of reverse discrimination than that blacks or Hispanics would suffer from racial bias.
Oddly, champions of the purportedly oppressed white male have been claiming the higher moral ground -- as if whites had been successful on those job searches only 80 percent of the time.
When properly carried out, affirmative action should simply mean that, all qualifications being equal, applicants of color are given preference, especially if there is continuing discrimination in a given profession.
There's one very simple reason to support affirmative action. It works. The black middle class has grown only when a strong economy has been complemented by affirmative action programs. One or the other alone isn't enough.
In the 1950s the economy was growing, but segregation and workplace bias kept blacks from getting ahead. The 1960s brought both a strong economy and the beginnings of affirmative action, and the black middle class nearly doubled.
In the 1970s, there was a deep recession, but affirmative action programs continued, and the black middle class stayed stable. And the 1980s brought economic growth again, but under President Ronald Reagan there was a backlash against affirmative action. The black middle class lost ground.
Yet proposals like the California initiative seem to expect workplace equality to appear magically without providing any enforcement mechanisms.
As the debate over affirmative action gathers momentum, we must all acknowledge that politicians and pundits often use race to appeal to our baser emotions, allowing the issue to become distorted.
Consider this: since the 1960s, when affirmative action programs began to be put in place, white women are widely acknowledged to have made the most gains, yet they are not usually depicted as hordes of unqualified employees deserving of scrutiny.
If the nation is determined to abandon affirmative action, we should be willing to devote the political and financial resources needed to make sure that the playing field is actually level.
Like most African-Americans, I'd be glad to dump affirmative action. All I ask in return is that our government find a way to ensure equality in the workplace.
I'm still waiting, and so is the rest of the country.
Farai Chideya is author of "Don't Believe the Hype: Fighting Cultural Misinformation About African-Americans."