Faced with this very dilemma, in a case concerning two female high-school teachers, the administrators of the Piscataway school district, New Jersey, decided that race would be the tiebreaker. They looked at the two teachers. One was black and one was white. They fired the white one. She responded by taking the case to court and winning. To fire someone for reasons of race, a district court found, was to trample on rights enshrined in the constitution. But the Piscataway authorities appealed and today the case awaits a decision by the Supreme Court.
Gwen Richardson, the black editor of National Minority Politics Magazine, believes that the school authorities acted wrongly. "In a case like that the only thing that you can do is flip a coin. If you base it on race - either way - it isn't fair and you'll have a justifiably disgruntled person on your hands." This view is not one shared by Jesse Jackson or, for that matter, President Bill Clinton.
The White House has taken the position that the Piscataway authorities were justified in firing the white teacher. The mainstream Democrat belief remains that the American system of racial preferences in employment and education - a legacy of the Sixties civil rights movement - remains both fair and necessary.
Ms Richardson disagrees. "I believe that much of what we've seen of affirmative action has had negative effects. Race norming, for example: you find a situation where blacks have to score less than whites to obtain a position. That's not only unfair, it gives ammunition to those who say there's a genetic reason why blacks can't score higher. As someone said at a conference I attended last week, `Don't ask me to argue that I'm inferior'."
Ms Richardson believes that there is an argument to be made for keeping in place parts of a system that gives the underprivileged a leg up the ladder. "But those who benefit should be judged not on race but on the degree to which they have been deprived of opportunity."
Such views are heresy to traditional liberal Democrats but music to the ears of Republicans pushing for an end to affirmative action. Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, says "it is antithetical to the American dream to measure people by the genetic patters of their great-grandmothers". Senator Bob Dole, the Republicans' leading candidate for the 1996 election, said last month that he planned to ban the practice of granting government contracts to companies that have met targets for the hiring of racial minorities.
While Mr Clinton's position so far has been that more still has to be done to redress past injustices, he is aware that Mr Dole's argument finds more of an echo among voters. The polls have shown that the call to end affirmative action is a sure vote-winner with the Angry White Males - a new breed of swing voters who gave the Republicans their resounding success in November's mid-term congressional elections. Middle-class American men are more insecure about their jobs today than at any point since the Thirties. Needing a scapegoat, they have alighted upon affirmative action: code in Angry White Malespeak for reverse discrimination. Suddenly, whites are seeking to usurp from blacks the role of victim.
Michael Kinsley, writing in the New Yorker, said the perception that blacks were taking away whites' jobs was, with some exceptions "a self- indulgent fantasy". The facts show, Mr Kinsley said, that "blacks still trail whites in every major prestige occupation outside sports". What was poisonous about the campaign against affirmative action was that it invited whites to blame blacks for their problems.
President Clinton, aware that the issue might dangerously accentuate racial polarisation, has said publicly that he is determined to stop affirmative action "from becoming another cheap, political, emotional wedge issue". Privately he is reported to have admitted that the Republican campaign "has legs". He has appointed the White House wunderkind, George Stephanopoulos, to head what officials described as an "urgent, intense" review of affirmative action policies.
"This issue is a political hot potato," a veteran Democratic Party strategist said. "It looms over Clinton like a thundercloud." The President's problem is that the centre ground in American politics has shifted rightwards and he must be seen to acknowledge the anxieties of the Angry White Male.
But on the other hand an about-turn on a policy which has been a point of Democratic dogma since the Sixties would risk fatally antagonising those who provide the party's energy. "If the Democrats don't find some backbone on this issue we will cease to exist as a party," a black congressman said last week.
Jesse Jackson has warned that he would be prepared to run against Mr Clinton for the Democratic's presidential nomination should he change tack on affirmative action. Mr Jackson's concern has been fuelled by senior Democratic figures who have publicly echoed the Dole-Gingrich view that it is time to get away from group thinking and embrace more universal,"colour- blind" policies. Because affirmative action is likely to generate more political heat than any other in the long run-up to the 1996 election, the newspapers are conducting poll after poll on the issue, the columnists are wringing the pros and cons dry. Are the Republicans really guilty of closet racism? Or are they displaying refreshing common sense?
Intriguingly straddling the debate are black Republicans like Michelle Dyson who agrees with Mr Dole's view that affirmative action has had its day. Raised by a single mother in a humble Washington home, today Ms Dyson runs a successful fibre optics computer business in Maryland. "Lowering standards to compensate for past injustices will merely make America less competitive," she says. "What we need is to improve education and training, instil in people a pride in their work. These are things that cannot be legislated."
Nor, Gwen Richardson believes, can you legislate social harmony. The great failure of race-based affirmative action is that it has fuelled social tensions, dividing people, not uniting them as originally intended. "Setting up programmes on the basis of race balkanises the country because you're encouraging people to identify with their country of origin or their race instead of asserting a common national identity."Reuse content