New Civil Rights Law Bears Seeds of Controversy Whether It Will Result in 'Colorblind' Hiring and Promotion Policies Is Yet to Be Worked Out

Article excerpt

POLITICIANS left a lot of room for argument in the 1991 civil rights bill.

Although President Bush signed it into law Nov. 21, much of the battle over how it will change the rules of hiring and job promotions still lies ahead.

The range of possible readings of the new bill appears to be wide - from requiring a virtually colorblind workplace, without racial preferences or minority set-asides, to stiffening the demands on business to justify any racial or gender disparities.

In economic terms alone, the stakes are billions of dollars high. If the bill were used to dismantle all minority set-aside programs for federal contracts, as White House counsel C. Boyden Gray has proposed, the effect on minority businesses nationally would be "devastating," says John Winston, associate director of the Minority Business Development Agency in the United States Department of Commerce.

The Department of Defense alone dispensed $4.1 billion to minority contractors in fiscal 1990.

To lose such opportunities, says Mr. Winston, would be comparable among minority entrepreneurs to the 1929 stock collapse or the present savings-and-loan crisis.

The hiring and promotion practices of the federal government itself have signal impact in the black community. About half a million blacks are directly employed by the US government, where they are nearly twice as well represented as in the private sector.

On the other hand, a conservative reading of the new law would confront businesses with less liability for discrimination lawsuits and the costs they bring.

The next step is now under way at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), where lawyers are figuring out how the new law affects the federal guidelines for affirmative action in both private and public enterprises across the US.

What the EEOC determines, probably in the next month or so, will be an important guide to the federal court rulings that will eventually define the law.

"If the agency has adopted an interpretation that is not crazy, that is not unreasonable - then the courts will abide by it," says Alfred Blumrosen, a law professor at Rutgers University who has served as an official in and consultant to the EEOC. How much maneuvering room is left in the law was illustrated by the distance between the original draft of the President Bush's signing statement for the bill Nov. 21 and the bill's reading by most of its supporters. Firm endorsement

The original draft, written by Mr. Gray, called for termination of the federal government's affirmative action, racial preference, and minority set-aside programs. …