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Reagan's outreach to blacks

President Reagan visits a black family that suffered a Ku Klux Klan cross burning. He calls a hospitalized black prizefighter on the telephone. He talks with students at a predominantly black Roman Catholic school. These are samples of the White House's new outreach to correct the impression that Mr. Reagan does not care about black Americans. Public visibility of this type is important because of the central presidential role in establishing the tone of the government. But it risks the charge of political window-dressing unless accompanied by more of the substance of outreach -- which the administration is encouragingly providing, too.

It is helpful for the President to be shown in the media expressing warm feelings toward his black countrymen. A civil rights consent decree is harder to capture on film. But the Justice Department should not be overlooked when it obtains, as it did last month, the largest back pay award it has ever obtained in a case of employment discrimination against a state or local government. The decree required that Fairfax County, Va., pay $2,750,000 to 685 persons kept from jobs or promotions because of their race or sex.

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At almost the same time the department filed a discrimination suit against North Little Rock, Ark. It called for, among other things, the recruitment of qualified blacks and women in numbers comparable to their representation in the labor market.

Such steps tend to get lost among accounts of the Justice Department rejecting former remedies against job bias and school segregation. The department remains saddled with the position of opposing before the Supreme Court the Internal Revenue Service's long-accepted withholding of tax exemptions from private schools that discriminate.

In January Mr. Reagan drew a storm of criticism when he sought to restore the tax exemptions by changing federal policy. This week, in talking with black students, he said he was only trying to reform the IRS and didn't realize any schools still practiced segregation. It was a question whether, in terms of imagery, he gained more by saying he didn't know than he lost by appearing so out of touch with what black Americans do know.

He ought to be aided in future by his appointing of a black consultant on urban affairs, Melvin Bradley, to be a special assistant representing the interests of minorities in the White House. This should be a valuable channel of information on how White House legal and economic policies affect minorities. It should forestall unsatisfactory civil rights appointments such as those Mr. Reagan has had to rescind. And it should help in arriving at improved White House legislative positions, such as the recent decision to support a Senate ''compromise'' Voting Rights Act almost as strong as the House version originally opposed by the White House.

Analysts may say the new moves on blacks are due to concern about black disaffection at the polls. But that is a function of democracy -- to have to make adjustments in response to voters. There is nothing wrong with it so long as the steps taken -- are taken seriously.

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