When President Reagan smiled for the cameras and waved to a group of black students brought to the White House lawn Friday to see him board his helicopter for Camp David, it ended a week-long administration campaign for civil rights.
But though the show may have featured black faces and talk of blacks' rights, administration officials said it was produced mainly for whites.
The White House staff has long dismissed black voters as a source of support if the president decides to run in 1984.
But officials worry that whites--particularly white women, whom they consider sensitive to unfair treatment of the disadvantaged, and moderate conservatives chary of being labeled anti-black--may defect from Reagan in politically damaging numbers if he cannot shake a reputation as the president who opposes blacks.
"Even a conservative administration has to have real concern when it comes to blacks because the most conservative opinion-makers, like thoughtful Americans of every stripe, do not consider themselves racists," a senior administration official said Friday afternoon after the president and Mrs. Reagan had smiled and shouted good-bye to the young blacks assembled to see them off.
"Even in conservative Republican circles, being seen as a racist is not acceptable and it shouldn't be," he added. "And in moderate Republican circles, we feel the race issue is beginning to hurt us more than any other part of the fairness issue."
The president's aides anticipated an onslaught of unfavorable publicity about the president's civil rights record last week, partly from antagonistic witnesses at the Senate Judiciary Committee's confirmation hearings for Reagan's three new U.S. Civil Rights Commission nominees, and partly from the NAACP convention in New Orleans.
To parry the feared blitz, the administration scheduled a counteroffensive of events for nearly every day of the week by collecting pending or neglected actions on civil rights that could be served up on short notice.
A desegregation suit against the Alabama state university system was filed on Monday. Justice Department officials acknowledged that it was timed partly to help out during civil rights week. Thomas I. Atkins, general counsel to the NAACP, observed tartly, "That case could have been filed at any time, but the administration has sought to avoid that kind of aggressive posture on civil rights until now."
The president last week also sent Congress a fair housing enforcement plan that was first announced five weeks ago by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr.--and quickly attacked at the time by civil rights groups as inadequate. The White House held a full-fledged briefing Monday to spell out its terms.
On Thursday the president signed an executive order to increase the share of government contracts going to businesses owned by minority-group members. He had first mentioned this in addressing a group of black businessmen last September and alluded to it again in December but only last week put it into effect.
The White House also has moved lately to spruce up the civil rights image of the Justice Department, especially the dour image of William Bradford Reynolds, head of the Civil Rights Division and the administration's point man on civil rights issues. Judith Pond, an aide to White House communications director David R. Gergen, was sent to the Justice Department in part for this purpose.
In recent weeks Reynolds has gone on a civil rights tour of Mississippi, where he was photographed singing "We Shall Overcome" with the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, and for last week's offensive Attorney General William French Smith met Thursday with Jackson and announced that he is considering holding a Washington conference on civil rights.
Smith also wrote articles for the opinion pages of The Washington Post and The New York Times saying his department and the president had been unfairly labeled as racist when they were fully committed to civil rights and opposed only quotas and busing, two means to an end.
White House officials tend to dwell on quotas as the only source of their differences with minority groups.
"I'm speaking politically now, that's the way to go at the race problem," a senior administration official said. "White people who are committed to civil rights as a cause are willing to say they don't like quotas bringing unqualified people onto their jobs. They are willing to say they don't like busing because it has ruined their neighborhood schools.
"Those aren't whispers. We are in the forefront of expressing those concerns, not acting as a part of any backlash with racist overtones. We want to make that clear.
"It's not only whites but blacks that have questions about busing and quotas," this administration official added. "We plan to let people realize that we are honest, not racist, and they can feel comfortable and compassionate in identifying with our position. We are speaking for them."
Smith executed that strategy in his opinion-page pieces. "We care about victims of racial discrimination . . . ," he wrote in The Post. "So why has the impression spread that we are dismantling civil rights laws and abandoning the national commitment to a just society, free of discrimination? I can think of only two reasons. Our open and principled opposition to busing as a remedy for school and our opposition to quotas . . . ."
Vice President Bush used similar arguments in the speech for which he was booed at the NAACP convention Friday, saying administration differences with civil rights groups were "not in goals, but in methods to achieve those goals. Our position is that we just don't think the way to fight racism is by setting up race as a criterion. Our approach is to fight racism . . . by seeking justice."
But civil rights leaders will have none of this.
"That is a smokescreen, not an argument," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, who headed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President Carter. "Every president since busing has been a remedy has been against busing. Nixon, Ford and Carter were all against quotas and they didn't get the kind of reception among minorities that Reagan has received. That's because where there were court-ordered quotas they didn't say later for quotas and like Bradford Reynolds try to find opportunities to overturn court-ordered quotas. They didn't tell government agencies not to file goals and timetables for contracts and hiring with minorities and women. They didn't try to give tax-exempt status to schools that segregate . . . ."
And the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights felt compelled to say recently: "Recent statements by the Justice Department constitute an astonishing misrepresentation of the Reagan administration's record on civil rights."