Boston -- PRESIDENT Bill Clinton's ringing endorsement of affirmative action last week, followed by Gov. Pete Wilson's successful maneuver to ban race and sex preferences at the University of California, set the stage for a battle stretching through next year's election campaign.
This will be a fight for the moral high ground.
Mr. Clinton, as a Southern liberal who came of age during the civil-rights era, knows first hand that black Americans have only recently been liberated from the oppressive effects of a deeply entrenched racial caste system.
For him, affirmative action is the contemporary expression of the same historic moral commitment to equality that finally ended Jim Crow. And he is surely right to say we should maintain this commitment, given the conditions in which many blacks still live.
But other moral arguments must be made. It is entirely appropriate that critics of race and sex preferences find support for their cause in the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
For though he did not use the term "color blind," King's indictment of segregation rested on the premise that racial identity has no moral significance.
In his great speech at the March on Washington in 1963, he dreamed that "little black boys and black girls [would] be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers."
He took comfort in the fact that "many of our white brothers [now] realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom." He declared, "We cannot walk alone."
King's vision of universal brotherhood and equality before God remains morally compelling and deeply relevant. How paradoxical that it is Republicans, not Democrats, who now remind us of these words.
We are a polity of vast and increasing ethnic and racial diversity. Affirmative action has undoubtedly encouraged a sense of group entitlement and competition, and has made it more difficult for Americans to see one another as individuals rather than as representatives of this or that social collective.
It has created a surreal world in which advocates for social justice tabulate government procurement of a missile guidance system from private industry as part of the 90 percent of public spending supposedly "set aside" for white men.
Far from leading us to see our destinies as interwoven, race and sex preferences have encouraged each group to strive to get its share.
Yet the most important challenges and opportunities confronting any person arise not from his racial condition but from our common human condition. In this respect, King understood that empathy and persuasion across racial lines are crucial for attaining social justice, yet impossible unless we understand that the aspirations of all people are of equal value.
Many Americans, myself included, are now convinced that affirmative action retards the attainment of this vision.
The president showed little recognition of these difficulties in his speech. He promised no more tolerance for reverse discrimination, quotas or preferences for unqualified people.
But this was a transparent effort to finesse, rather than engage, the moral problems at the core of race and sex preferences.
Giving out government contracts on the basis of the sex or skin color of the -- often wealthy -- owners of the businesses is discrimination. Turning away better qualified whites from a state law school in favor of blacks from richer families who are not state residents is discrimination.
Presuming that immigrants from Latin America are more entitled to preferential treatment than those from Eastern Europe is also discrimination. Which of these practices is the president now committed to rooting out?
At the same time, Mr. Clinton's passion to right historic wrongs exposes the moral weakness in the Republicans' assault on affirmative action. The president wrongly thinks that preserving race- and sex-based preferences is required to keep faith with his commitment to social justice.
Yet, with a perverse symmetry, Republicans are deeply misguided when they seek an end to affirmative action while ignoring racial deprivation.
Newt Gingrich had it right when he indicated that Congress should move to dismantle affirmative action only after creating something to put in its place. We know what the Republicans are against in the area of racial policy, but what are they for?
A pro-family, anti-government agenda may not be intrinsically antagonistic to minority interests, but neither does it do anything about the chasm of racial division.
We desperately need moral vision from our political leaders, of whatever party. The real problem of racial inequality is scarcely touched by preferential policies.
Improving inner-city education is vastly more important for attaining racial justice than is balancing the complexions of those admitted to elite universities.
Finding work for welfare recipients, reducing crime and drugs and fighting racial discrimination against individuals are more crucial for achieving equal opportunity than awarding contracts to rich minority businessmen.
Opponents of affirmative action, who now have the momentum, must speak to these issues concretely and with conviction. Otherwise, they will win little more than a Pyrrhic victory.
Remarkably, conservatives now have a chance to wrest the moral high ground on the race issue from liberals, but only if they proceed with patience, wisdom and a spirit of generosity.
"The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity," King said in that remarkable 1963 speech.
This is still true, in far too great a measure, and no politician aspiring to lead our country should be allowed to forget it.
Glenn C. Loury is author of "One by One from the Inside Out: Race and Responsibility in America." He wrote this for the New York Times.