President-elect Ronald Reagan will appoint blacks to the Cabinet and to high-level positions in the federal agencies, but not necessarily to positions traditionally held by blacks, according to his top aide and counselor, Edwin Meese III.
The president-elect also will break the pattern of having a black person in the White House to act as liason with civil rights organizations and other black interest groups, Meese said in a speech to black Republicans and neoconservatives meeting here this weekend.
Reagan "will look for people at the highest level of decision making -- executive positions, management positions and other types of high positions -- as he did in California," Meese said, "but I think he is committed to putting blacks in nontraditional roles.
"There is no black Cabinet 'spot' as far as he's concerned. There will undoubtedly be blacks in the Cabinet but not in just the same department over and over again," he said to cheers from the conference participants.
Blacks have usually gotten into the Cabinet as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and a black women, Chicago attorney Jewel Lafontant, was widely rumored last week to be Reagan's choice for HUD. Meese's remarks appeared to discourage that speculation. Conservative black economist Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution who attended the weekend conference, is being mentioned as a potential appointee to the Council of Economic Advisers.
Reagan's first eight appointments were all white men, and a ninth appointee appears certain to be a white man -- Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr. as secretary of state. The Cabinet positions that have not yet been announced, in addition to State and HUD, are secretaries of the interior, labor, education and energy.
Black appointments to federal jobs have tended to be concentrated in federal civil rights agencies or sections. Presidents Ford and Carter varied from that tradition -- Ford appointed a black to the Department of Transportation, and Carter, in particular, appointed a black as United Nations ambassador and named several other blacks to sub-Cabinet positions in domestic policy agencies throughout the government.
Democratic and Republican presidents alike have had a black person on the White House staff to handle relations with civil rights groups and other black organizations, but Meese said Reagan's staff would have no "ambassadors to black people." Blacks will be in the White House, he said, but in other roles.
Leaders of the NAACP, Urban League and other civil rights groups had asked Reagan in a meeting in Washington last Thursday to assign a White House staffer to serve as their conduit to him, and they said Reagan agreed. But Meese indicated in his address here that that person probably would not be black and would not have the job of dealing solely with black groups as has been the tradition in other administrations.
"I think there're going to be black people in high places in the White House staff but they're not going to be the ambassadors to the black people. They're going to be there because they have a substantive role to fulfill," Meese said. "You're not going to have one person that all blacks have to funnel through. I think that is demeaning."
A group of black leaders who met for nearly an hour with the president-elect in Washington last Thursday left that session without a clear reading on Reagan's intentions on black appointments.
In the meeting, which was reported to be filled with philosphy and policy conflicts over a range of issues, Reagan made statements that some interpreted as meaning he would put a black in the Cabinet. Others felt that his words were carefully phrased to commit him only to placing blacks somewhere among the 3,000 positions he has to fill.
The civil rights leaders left their meeting with Reagan Thursday in serious disagreement with his positions against busing for school desegregation and for a sub-minimum wage to get black teen-agers into the labor force. The president-elect's stand in favor of transferring to the states federal funds and responsibilities for many domestic programs also distressed the civil rights leaders, uncomfortably reminding them of the old cry of states' rights that has in the past thinly screened antidesegregation and white supremacy positions.
Meese, referring to the Thursday meeting, told participants at the conference here: "We looked at some of the people who purported to represent the leadership of the black community -- and I'm not in any way disagreeing or putting them down. The difference between that meeting and this conference here is they were talking about the last 10 years and the ideas of the last 10 years. You're talking about the ideas of the next 10 years."
Meese told a reporter Reagan was very aware of the conference here and that they had discussed it last week between a round of meetings with black and Hispanic groups.
Meese promised the conference that the Reagan administration would "adhere to the problems of this country and we hope that how we act will benefit black Americans." He said Reagan would live up to a campaign promise to provide financial support for black colleges and would act to curb any "zealous demons" at the Department of Education who might try to undo that effort.