We keep saying "affirmative action," but what we're really debating is integration: How far do we push for a multiracial, multicultural, fair and equitable society?
How fast is fast enough?
And most important, what coercion, if any, do we apply to those who resist integration, who feel that they're not ready for it, who implore the rest of us to go slower?
This is really the old evolution vs. revolution question: Do we wait for attitudes and practices to change on their own or do we take affirmative action to change them?
And, yes, we've had this debate before. We've had it many times.
Delegates to the Constitutional Convention debated this very question in 1776.
W.E.B. Dubois had this debate with Booker T. Washington during the Niagara Conference in 1909 -- the conference that led to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
And segregationists argued the issue with integrationists during the civil rights movement of the early 1960s.
In fact, many of the national leaders who attack affirmative action also opposed the civil rights acts of the early 1960s that made segregation illegal -- and they are using much the same language now that they used then.
George Bush, as an example, opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when he ran for the U.S. Senate. As president, he vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1990 and sabotaged the attempt of business leaders and activists to forge a compromise bill in 1991.
In each case, Bush charged that the measures would lead to reverse discrimination resulting in a white backlash.
His solution: Wait. Let it happen naturally. Go slowly.
"This is a litany that those of us in the civil rights field have heard many times," said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in an interview with Playboy magazine in 1965.
" 'What does the Negro want?' 'When will the Negro be satisfied?'? 'Why can't the Negro go more slowly?' 'What will it take for these demonstrations to end?' "
Affirmative action, according to modern day civil rights advocates, essentially means that an employer or institution makes a conscious, deliberate effort to include minorities. Discriminatory practices are eliminated. Minorities are promoted to decision-making positions. Goals and timetables often are adopted to measure progress.
When these steps are accomplished voluntarily, with support up and down the line, the institution is enriched and people learn that they can work together without friction.
But what happens when an employer refuses to stop discriminating? Or when middle management does everything it can to sabotage the efforts? Or when racial hostility is so ingrained that the inclusion of minorities creates a backlash among the white workers?
For centuries, minorities were told to simply wait until attitudes evolved to the point that whites could accept them. What we call the "modern day civil rights movement" began when blacks decided those attitudes would never change unless they were affirmatively challenged.
"One has got to start with the premise of whether we are a nation that wants to ensure fairness in the workplace or in school," said Julius L. Chambers of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund.
"And if we accept that premise," Chambers continued, "then the question is how do we accomplish it? What we've seen in practice is that if we do nothing, nothing happens. What we're doing now, then, to all intents and purposes, is debating whether to go back to segregation."
Added Ralph Neas, director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights: "Those of us who believe in the goal of civil rights in both the Democratic and Republican parties have got to do a much better job of explaining what affirmative action is and what it has accomplished."
"The right wing has been very successful in the 1980s and 1990s of manipulating people to equate affirmative action with quotas.
"The bottom line is, most civil rights leaders don't support quotas. The Democratic Party doesn't support quotas. And the courts have ruled that specific quotas are illegal.
"It is demagoguery of the worst order for the right wing to keep bringing quotas into the issue, and we who know better have to be more aggressive in countering it."
Affirmative action has opened opportunities for millions of Americans. But millions are still shut out. And not even the demagogues can make that second group go away.