The Reagan White House, according to a report by Juan Williams of The Post, was "taken aback by the furor" over the president's proposed purge of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

The Reagan White House is easily "taken aback," especially by the hostile reaction to symbolic blunders in civil-rights policy. The summary discharge of three commission members will incidentally leave it all white except for its Reagan-appointed chairman, Clarence Pendleton. That is vividly symbolic, but it is not substantively important.

In fact, it could have the ironic result of restoring to the Civil Rights Commission a notice and prestige it has forfeited by chronic intemperance and irrelevance. Congress created the commission in 1957 to document shortcomings in equal protection. Its early work, especially through investigations by state advisory bodies, was helpful and occasionally distinguished. Since then, however, the commission has become a buzzing gadfly.

President Reagan will no doubt be "taken aback" when his attempt to swat a pest borne in silence by other presidents adds to the impression that he is hostile to black interests. But it's the Voting Rights renewal story all over again.

Two years ago, the president dithered while Congress debated the issue of renewing and strengthening the 1965 act. When Reagan finally weighed in with an opinion, renewal was a fait accompli; nothing was left to be decided.

Reagan's dilatoriness on the voting rights issue was, as The Post story interestingly notes, matched by that of the Civil Rights Commission. While the commission investigated issues of little interest to the great mass of underemployed blacks (e.g., minority employment on TV networks and in high-tech industry), it failed to file a report on voting rights on time.

At least two of the three new Reagan nominees to the commission--Morris Abram and John H. Bunzel--have long records of civil-rights activism, excellent as such records were measured before the divisive issue of "reverse discrimination" intruded. Their skepticism of that double-edged remedy for racial wrongs, which drew the notice of Reagan White House officials, will probably be the point of attack upon them. It will need to be vigorously rebuffed.

For apart from insensitivity to the symbolic aspect of civil rights, the Reagan administration's Achilles' heel has been its failure to clarify the crucial difference between "affirmative action" (which is perfectly consistent with color-blindness in the law) and "reverse discrimination" (which is not).

Color-blindness--the term was made memorable by the first Justice Harlan in his heroic dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson--is a legal term of art of specific meaning. It is not the rigid pretense that embedded racial wrongs never require nor justify special concern. Color-blindness instead condemns legal remedies that purport to redress past wrongs by creating new categories of first- and second-class citizenship.

There is some hope that the new commission members, if confirmed, may correct the confusion. Neither Abram nor Bunzel, as a May 25 interview with the press shows, is confused about these critical distinctions nor intimidated by the campaign to muddy them. In Bunzel's words, the distinction between affirmative action and reverse discrimination "is the distinction between compensatory action . . . and racially preferential treatment."

Examples of legitimate affirmative action --ranging from programs like Head Start and Upward Bound to the recognition of race as one (of many) "pluses" in considering a college application--abound. No such measures require invidious categorization of other persons or groups.

Affirmative action, in short, needs rescuing from the polemical distortions of both friends and foes who slyly or ignorantly equate it with reverse discrimination and quota systems.

Can the White House manage the rescue effort? One occasionally has the impression that no one at 1600 Pennsylvanian Ave., including the president, has followed the unfolding civil-rights debate since about 1970. That may explain why the White House is often "taken aback" by the reaction to maneuvers that others see as blunders.