When he was running for president, especially when appearing before black audiences, Ronald Reagan occasionally invoked the name of John F. Kennedy.

Black voters should not think of him as a "caricature conservative" who is "anti-poor, anti-black, anti-disadvantaged," Reagan would say. Think of him as someone like Kennedy who had to prove to Protestants in 1960 that he was not some agent of the devil and Rome. As president, Kennedy promised Protestants during that campaign, he would act just as much in their behalf as he would for Catholics or any other group of Americans.

So Reagan with blacks. He was, he promised them in 1980, "committed to the protection of the civil rights of black Americans. This commitment is interwoven into every phase of the programs I will propose."

Now, his spokesmen say, he is "hurt" at the imputation that he condones racial discrimination. Hurt there is, all right, but it extends far beyond any possible presidential wounds from critical words. Blacks who believed Reagan's pro-civil rights pledges as presidential candidate have every right to feel betrayed by his anti-civil rights actions as president.

Probably no other incident in Reagan's first year in the White House raises so many questions about his handling of issues and his perception of the presidency as the current fiasco over tax exemptions for segregated schools.

To hear the president tell it, the whole thing was just a little misunderstanding, one he obviously hopes will go away.

It won't. Nor should it.

"I am unalterably opposed to racial discrimination in any form," the president says, in a statement attempting to clarify the confusion surrounding his administration's off-and-on actions in this sorry affair. "I would not knowingly contribute to any organization that supports racial discrimination...."

Yet he has, in a flagrant fashion.

Granting tax-exempt status to schools that discriminate, an abrupt reversal of the policy of the United States government for more than a decade and quite likely an abrogation of the clear intent of the Congress and the courts as well, means an economic windfall for those institutions. In these inflationary times of financial crises for private schools it could mean their survival.

That's certainly a handsome Reagan contribution to their well-being if not an implicit presidential endorsement of their openly discriminatory policies. Even more, it's an invitation for more private schools to join them in seeking federal tax relief while proclaiming racial discrimination as one of their primary philosophical tenets. Bigots can bankroll these segregationist schools and write off their contributions as charity, courtesy of Uncle Sam. They have the president's blessings.

For the president to maintain he wasn't "knowingly" contributing to an institution that supports racial discrimination is, to put it gently, unbelievable. He knows personally one of the principal schools involved, Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., having spoken there as a candidate. That school makes no pretense about what the government calls its "blatantly discriminatory" policies, and cites the Bible as its authority.

There was nothing casual about this dramatic reversal of long-standing policy. Nor was it merely some administrative action carried out by lower-level overzealous aides who didn't understand the president's real commitment to civil rights.

The president personally approved the reversal as urged by political aides in both Treasury and Justice departments and his White House. Did he not really understand the implications?

When controversy immediately flared, as inevitably it would, he attempted to explain it away. He drew a distinction between his own abhorrence of racial discrimination and his equally well-known determination to get meddlesome big government off the backs of the citizens.

"The sole basis" of the decision, the White House tells us, in the president's name, was to curb excesses of administrative agencies "exercising powers that the Constitution assigns to the Congress. Such agencies, no matter how well-intentioned, cannot be allowed to govern by administrative fiat."

Which is not what this episode involves.

What emerges here is a vivid example of Ronald Reagan's conception of his presidential powers and duties.

These agencies, after all, are under his direct authority. They are charged to implement the laws and regulations of the land and to carry out his policy directives as the chief law officer of the nation. His policy switch placed the federal government firmly in the business of subsidizing segregation with public funds, all with the sanctions of the only official elected by all the people.

There can be no misunderstanding about this. There can be no clearer case of the United States endorsing racial discrimination in education, with the cost to be borne by every American taxpayer. There can be no shifting of legal and moral responsibility by trying to pretend that the only issue is how aggressively or passively government agencies in Washington perform their jobs.

In the storm after the new policy pronouncement, some black leaders accused the president of being a racist. I, for one, do not believe that and hope that ugliest of epithets is not raised again. Reason enough for outrage exists without resorting to slander.

The president has permitted his administration to act with profound insensitivity toward the rights of others. He has failed to demonstrate something even more important: that he intends to act, as president, as guardian of the rights of all the people he represents.