IT SEEMED ONLY yesterday that we were subjected to Ben Vereen's outrageous minstrel performance in blackface makeup at President Ronald Reagan's Inaugural Gala, an act that Vereen, with a straight face, explained as a "tribute" to famous black comedian Bert Williams. Nobody -- except maybe Ronald Reagan and his crowd -- was impressed.

Now comes the Ben Vereen of economics, Dr. Thomas Sowell of Stanford University's conservative Hoover Institution, giving us his own blackface sociology of black power in America. Is this the harbinger of things to come for '81?

Dr. Sowell, who has a reputation as a brilliant economist, recently wrote in two articles in this newspaper that the entire problem of blacks in America was tied up in shades of black skin color and the power of a light-skinned black elite.

He argued that light-skinned blacks who descended from "free blacks or house slaves" have had a virtual monopoly on leadership because of their greater access to education, people in power and money. But today, Dr. Sowell areuges, their leadership is being increasingly challenged by "rising members of the black masses." Dr. Sowell says the traditional light-skinned elite no longer can speak for the needs of the black masses.

Now it is true that caste and class have had their place in black history -- in the same way that backface has had its role. Both were a response to the black American condition. Strange as it may seem, a few black parents still may hope their children won't marry dark-skinned blacks. That attitude had its day. But skin hue is just not central to black concerns in 1981.

In the last 15 years, with the coming of age of the modern civil rights era and the black revolution, it's been about as major an issue among blacks as frying pans have been for women. Attempts to resurrect color differences among blacks as an issue have crumbled. For Dr. Sowell to resurrect the issue in the name of the black masses is not only bad timing, but also bad history.

The question that won't go away is, why is Dr. Sowell doing this? What does he hope to gain from rising antiquated ideas?

First, Dr. Sowell is part of a conservative and reactionary black tradition, John Chavis, for example, was a black slave owner who defended slavery. Booker T. Washington was a black who endorsed the concept of "separate but equal" treatment for blacks.Black journalist George Schuyler was a conservative who wrote for the black press.

But what is different about Dr. Sowell is that, as a member of President Reagan's Economic Policy Advisory Board, he can command center stage in a way that Schuyler, for instance, never could.

Dr. Sowell boasts of his ghetto background. He attended Howard University in the heyday of class and caste. But he serves the purpose of white conservatives with his right-wing ideas. He seems also to act in a role he uniquely identifies for himself -- as a bitter critic of light-skinned and middle-class blacks.His Achilles heel, however, may be his political naivete about race. I wish he could debate with Malcolm X, who once told a black Harvard professor: "Do you know what they call you behind your back, Mr. Ph.D.? They call you nigger."

Rich or poor, light or dark, black is black in America.

The only question Dr. Sowell raised that is relevant today is that the black leadership is out of step with its following.But instead of coming up with a program for black leaders to get in step with their followers, he castigated those blacks who put their lives on the line during the civil rights movement -- Andrew Young and Vernon Jordon, for instance.

Now it is perfectly all right to criticize. After all, whoever expected that all blacks should be any more harmonious than all Jews or all women or all Italians? But if he is going to drop to this level, one has to ask where Dr. Sowell was when the cities were burning and the Andrew Youngs were dodging bullets on dusty roads in Selma, Ala. Tom Sowell hasn't paid any dues the likes of Vernon Jordan's whose civil rights activities landed him in a hospital with a bullet in his back.

What does he think about the national holiday commemorating Martin Luther King's birthday? Does he accept the conservative view that it would interrupt the American cycle of production?

There always have been certain subjects designed to get people upset -- and Dr. Sowell seems to have a penchant for picking them. It seems to come down to this: There are legitimate differences among blacks, as there are legitimate differences among women. Some blacks are embarrased to wash that linen in public; some go so far as to deny that the dirt exists. But Dr. Sowell is stuck in a time-warp.

He cannot accept his money and his identity from conservatives who have traditionally been against the black and the poor masses and still attempt to legitimize his ideas in the name of those masses. It won't wash, Dr. Sowell.

If this is the man that Ronald Reagan is going to turn to for the word on what black people think, he will find himself getting horse-and-buggy advice from a man who is about as representative of blacks as the Edsel is of American automotive know-how.