Listen to the noisy public debate about affirmative action, and you'd think the issue is entirely about hiring preferences for blacks. But the government's employment rules cover 48 million white women, 10 million Hispanics, and 3 million Asians in addition to 13 million blacks--in all, 54% of the labor force.

That makes affirmative action a tricky balancing act for the 225,000 companies that do business with the federal government. As competition in the labor markets intensifies, the "other minorities"--women, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans--are all insisting they should be considered first.

Of all the groups eligible for preferential hiring, women have fared the best. At 45% of the work force, they are hardly a minority--but affirmative-action laws cover them, because discrimination has kept so many in low-paying occupations. Women have, over the past 20 years, made enormous strides in corporations and, especially, in the professions: They now make up nearly 20% of lawyers, vs. 5% in 1970. "But there are still nearly 5 million women who work and live in poverty," says Cynthia Marano, director of Wider Opportunities for Women, an advocacy group in Washington.

Hispanics face a different set of problems. For many, language is a barrier to good jobs. So is employers' fear of hiring illegal immigrants. While affirmative action has "heightened the profile of Hispanics in the workplace," says Mario Moreno, director of the Washington office of the Mexican-American Legal Defense & Education Fund, "discrimination is still a critical problem." Hispanics make up 7.5% of the work force but hold only 4% of white-collar jobs. Instead, they tend to perform agricultural, janitorial, and other types of menial labor.

By contrast, Asian-Americans, 3% of the work force, face less resistance in getting hired for white-collar jobs. For them, the need "is not just jobs--it's promotions, it's people moving into positions of power and authority," says Kathy Owyang Turner, acting director of Chinese for Affirmative Action in San Francisco. One of this group's unique problems: the widely held stereotype that Asian-Americans are hard workers but aren't assertive enough to be managers.

BOILING OVER. But the black, Hispanic, and Asian populations are all growing much faster than the white population. As a result, tensions among minorities are boiling over. "Blacks have been too successful at the expense of everyone else," grumbles Peter Roybal, a Mexican-American captain in the San Francisco Fire Dept. "Other groups have been ignoredto placate the blackcommunity."

Such conflict is at its worst in California, where minorities make up 42% of the population. In Los Angeles, black and white members of Laborers Local 300 are suing to overturn a plan giving Hispanics preference in winning unskilled construction work. In increasingly Latino Watts, the Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Center is caught between two groups: Hispanics want a bigger share of the health care jobs, but to accommodate them, the hospital would have to lay off the blacks who traditionally held these positions.

As competition for a limited number of jobs grows fiercer, affirmative action will almost certainly continue to pit one group against another. And employers are thrust into the uncomfortable role of deciding an issue the government won't touch: which minority is most deserving. Ask Larry Burnett, a white manager at Michigan Bell Telephone Co. He wants to promote a black male to a supervisor's job. But Burnett says his superiors are balking: "The personnel department says we are deficient in white females."

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