WASHINGTON. — Washington -- A caller to a radio show recently suggested that the fate of Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, punished by fellow baseball owners for uttering racial slurs, should be left up to market forces. If the fans are offended, the caller reasons, the fans should stay away from her ballpark.
That, to me, is free advice that's worth every penny of what the listener pays to hear it.
But there is another way that market forces could play a bigger role in encouraging equal opportunity. Former Harvard Law Professor Derrick Bell suggests something similar in his book ''Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism.'' He suggests that we do to discrimination what libertarians have long suggested we do to recreational drugs like marijuana: Legalize it and tax it.
Professor Bell suggests a ''Racial Preference Licensing Act'' that would allow companies to discriminate all they want in exchange for a 3 percent tax on all the income derived from whites employed, whites served or products sold to whites during the licensing periods.
The beauty of the plan is that it would put the license fees and commissions paid by license holders into an ''equality fund'' that would be administered by a commission whose membership would include at least one representative nominated by five major civil rights groups to serve a three-year, non-renewable term.
The ''equality fund'' would be used to underwrite black businesses, offer no-interest mortgage loans for black home buyers and provide scholarships for black students seeking college and vocational education.
Although it sounds far-fetched, a form of ''equality fund'' was offered by sponsors of the 1990 Fiesta Bowl when they offered $100,000 worth of black scholarships to colleges that agreed to play in Phoenix, in spite of the boycott then waged against Arizona for its failure to pass a Martin Luther King holiday.
Marge Schott has been funding similar favors for black folks in Cincinnati since her mouth got her into trouble. Small wonder. This is more than a free-speech case. Her organization reportedly had only one black employee out of 45 at the beginning of this case, a statistic that wouldn't look too good if she were caught up in a discrimination suit.
How much easier it might have been for Mrs. Schott to have bought a ''Racial Preference'' license that would have protected her right to discriminate while offering deserving black youths a chance to improve their lives, perhaps even to someday buy their own baseball team that could beat the red socks off the Reds.
Instead, Mrs. Schott was judged less satisfyingly by her peers, who would just as soon see the whole mess (and Schott) go away. Those who police themselves are most reluctant to punish themselves, especially when the accusers may be as guilty in various ways as the accused.
But baseball's owners are paragons of racial virtue compared to some other major corporations. A deplorable example popped into the headlines a day after Mrs. Schott's settlement was announced, when lawyers in Washington announced a record $105 million race-discrimination settlement against the Shoney's Inc. restaurant chain.
Evidence of discrimination at Shoney's 759 restaurants in 35 states included, according to court documents, a direct order from the company's founder and CEO to stop hiring blacks because he said he thought his restaurants were becoming ''too dark.''
Compared to that, Marge Schott got off easy. She'll barely feel the pain of her $25,000 fine, her mandated sensitivity classes or her ''suspension from baseball for one year.''
If anything, the cases of Schott and Shoney's illustrate how racism is alive and well in America in spite of sweeping anti-discrimination laws that were passed a quarter of a century ago.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.