President Reagan recently chose an audience of sympathetic black Republicans to debunk the value of ''Great Society'' social programs to black progress. The President's assertion is, baldly, that black Americans would be better off today if they had pursued the more rigorous course of self-help and assumed the posture of achievers rather than ''victims.'' He apparently believes blacks have grown too dependent on government-sponsored welfare programs.
Others, most notably white ethnics and neoconservatives of every hue, have echoed similar views. Social welfare programs, they readily agree, do not provide the answers to low self-esteem or race pride. They view blacks as constant complainers who see themselves as due such benefits as food stamps, free legal aid, income maintenance, subsidized health care, and housing allotments.
This simplistic view of welfare and ''the Negro problem'' is pathetically uninformed.
First, the social welfare programs of the Great Society, and New/Fair Deal eras, benefited many more whites than blacks. The food supplement programs, for instance, have not been subsidies for blacks and Puerto Ricans but have also helped thousands of poor white families and students to maintain an adequate diet.
Moreover, the President having lived through the Great Depression ought to know the historic significance and continuing effect of federal programs that fund social security; veterans benefits; college research and development; low-interest mortgages which provide housing for the middle-income; unemployment benefits; programs for the aged and infirm; and insurance for bank depositors' savings. Whites have been the main and intended beneficiaries of such entitlements. And there is no evidence that they are preparing to give them up in deference to new federal budget priorities.
The Great Society programs, because they were established during a period government was actively redressing racial and social inequities, do, however, have special significance to blacks and to our public policy. The President's attack on them, before a group of prosperous blacks, has an especially cynical ring. He did not offer a new set of strategies to overcome racial discrimination , poverty and inequalities; he only offered phraseology to repudiate cherished principles and goals of social reform to justify his own radically different view of federalism.
The most industrious person had a problem in the Great Depression. It should, therefore, be self-evident that hard work and hard work alone on the part of individual workers does not account for their economic success or stability. Without certain government supports - irrespective of these persons' industriousness - their economic and personal self-sufficiency could slip to insufficient pittance. That is the plight of many who find their unemployment benefits have run out and their savings are depleted, and they can't yet use their skills or sell their labor.
Black persons have, as a group and in specific cases, been hobbled by the pervasive system of racial discrimination and segregation. Their incomes were restricted by meager wages. They were barred from well-paying jobs and occupations and denied equal educational opportunities. Despite these barriers, many blacks achieved parity with whites who, by and large, were unencumbered in their private and social mobility by the traps and hurdles of racial discrimination. Personal achievement notwithstanding, blacks struggled as a people to overcome and change racist laws by applying pressure on the courts, Congress, state legislatures, and the public. That individual and group struggle for personal achievement and community development goes on.
The President obviously chooses to ignore this history. His effort to substitute his own ideology about ''limited government'' in the spheres of social and racial justice is, actually, and dangerously, canceling a national commitment to civil rights enforcement on the pretext of boosting self-help. Not even Richard Nixon, who almost robbed us of our constitutional bedrock, threatened indifference to the survival of the nation with such a revolutionary repudiation of government's avowed purposes to act for all of the people for the good of the people.
This President, of course, knows he cannot wish away the Great Society programs. He has, unfortunately, many allies who feel ''put upon'' by social welfare programs. They speak, at once, to all sides of the argument against federal spending on social programs; that is, they think the programs are wasteful, encourage dependency, are too expensive, and cause inflation.
Unfortunately, for his own reasons, the President has aided a cold, calculated, and vehement campaign to tell black people their freedom and economic futures are not tied to the train of federal policy or ''hand-outs.'' The rhetoric rings true to black conservatives and whites who see themselves as individually innocent of racial animus and are, frankly, bored with bellyaching from Negroes and their leaders. Like the railings against ''busing,'' ''quotas, '' and ''forced integration'' the thought is that enough despondent and weary blacks will forsake the liberal conventions of the past and join the chorus of new majori-tians' pragmatism.
Such counsel is not likely to get very far in the black population; blacks are too shrewd for poppycock. They are too familiar with the forces of discrimination which have relegated them to second-class citizenship; they encounter daily racism although others discount and deny its currency. They know , too, that the struggle against racism is collective and personal, and that progress for the race is not measured by appeals to ''cast down their buckets'' in places determined by segregative attitudes.
Blacks will not abandon traditional or effective remedies to discrimination in the workplace, neighborhood, and schools because to do so would not be in their interest. Nor will they be halted in their movement by new studies, renewed speechmaking, or Orwellian doubletalk that seek to settle the ''race issue'' by giving some whites convenient rationalizations for selfishness and retrenchment of programs designed to improve society as a whole