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It always seems a little curious when some of the same people who talk about rebuilding "values," "community" and other social supports are also the ones most critical of affirmative action.

They see the benefit of these intangible mechanisms and social linkages -- even demand them -- in most areas of life. But not when it comes to employment. There the myth of isolated individuals starting from a level playing field and pulling themselves up solely by their own bootstraps suddenly becomes operative.

The contradiction comes when pondering the responses of area residents resentful of affirmative action hiring programs.

The white backlash described in part of The News' "One Community, Two Peoples" series on race relations is not new. Nor is it hard to understand, given the myth of rugged individualism that feeds the nation's image of itself.

But it is, in large part, just that: a myth. One has only to ponder the fate of a Ross Perot, born poor and black on Jefferson Avenue, to realize that Horatio Alger was just a fiction writer.

In fact, one of the most elusive problems is how to instill the efficacy of education and hard work in youngsters whose own parents weren't taught it and never saw much proof of its value. Ask any teacher struggling to educate these students to pinpoint the greatest determinant of educational success, and chances are the response will be socioeconomic background.

That is another way of saying the social group in which the child was raised. It punctures the notion of individuals advancing solely on their own merits. It's an acknowledgment that bootstraps are provided by others.

One obvious way to deal with the problem is by creating a larger class of minority parents who hold the requisite values by having gotten a leg up on the socioeconomic ladder. Buffalo's affirmative-action programs help do that, creating middle- and upper-class minority professionals who will then instill those values in their own children and also serve as examples for others around them.

Affirmative-action programs are a recognition that the myth of individualism has to be tempered by the reality of group influences. They're an effort designed to redress a legacy of discrimination inflicted by one group on another group, with an impact still rippling through the targeted group.

One has to look no further than the statistics on blacks in the area work force to see that the playing field has not yet been leveled. The numbers of blacks in professional jobs here remain below the national average. Even in the blue-collar categories, employment for black males trails in most categories.

With mean income increasing significantly faster for whites than for blacks over the past decade, it is clear the "vestiges of discrimination" the Supreme Court has talked about remain here.

In short, there is still a group problem. And group problems demand group solutions. That's because we are a society, not just -- or even foremost -- a collection of individuals.

Our futures are determined in large part by the social relationships we are born into. The stories of isolated blacks who "make it" against the odds in no way obscure that larger picture, as painted by statistics like those in The News series.

Against that reality, arguing that affirmative action efforts discriminate against white males is as relevant as saying that a child born into a poor black family has not been discriminated against because of the biases his parents faced. When one problem is dealt with, the other will take care of itself.

If there is good news amid the bitterness over affirmative action, it is that just over half of whites polled -- 52 percent -- believe companies should set aside jobs for qualified minorities. There is also the finding that -- despite the widespread belief in "reverse discrimination" -- hardly any whites felt they had ever been denied a job because of race. That points to the fact that such programs are hardly the demons they are made out to be.

Still, it would be nice if affirmative-action programs were not necessary. Even some blacks don't like them because of the stigma often unfairly attached.

Somehow, that stigma rarely gets affixed to white males -- even when they're the recycled failures rotated among sports coaching and general manager jobs, or the sons of friends who get hired because father is a part of the right group.

But as long as we are a society divided -- and that will be true until all segments can merge on equal footing -- group solutions remain the most viable means of addressing problems that, after all, were caused by group divisions.

ROD WATSON is an editorial writer for The News.

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