Americans' dedication to civil rights is often particularly tested when general prosperity remains somewhere around the corner. It is being tested now when there are mixed signals from Washington in the face of overriding concern to keep a fledgling recovery from falling out of the nest.
There is no doubt that a return of firm and widespread growth promises to ease discrimination's economic effects on minorities and women. But citizens cannot allow the effort toward legal ideals of equity to lag in the meantime. New studies suggest that, for all the progress achieved by many individuals, disparities were not reduced as much as might have been expected even during the good times of the recent past.
Congress is lending a much-needed hand with part of the challenge. Senate Finance Committee hearings on the Women's Economic Equity Act follow last week's hearings on it by the House Select Committee on Aging. This legislation packages various proposals on pensions, insurance, and child support.
Almost simultaneously comes a report from a research organization, the Joint Center for Political Studies, with a seldom-used measure of the economic gap between white and black Americans. By this measure - household wealth, including real estate, cars, and other assets - black families average only 36 percent as much as white families. A center spokesman considers this is a more complete measure of economic status than yearly income.
Even in terms of income, black families have remained at only about 60 percent the level of white families. Almost the same figure has applied to the wages of another discriminated-against group, women, in relation to wages of men. Not surprisingly, women have been found to be particular victims of today's poverty. Not long ago the US Commission on Civil Rights reported that discrimination in employment worsens the problem for women, especially those belonging to ethnic minorities.
Last week the commission took the administration to task for, in effect, failing to set a strong example against discrimination. It said there had been a sharp drop in appointments of blacks as well as a decline in appointments of women.
The administration defended its record, noting President Reagan's appointment of 200 blacks, 130 Hispanic Americans, and more than 1,000 women to ''important'' positions. He can cite such conspicuous appointments as Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court, Jeane Kirkpatrick as ambassador to the United Nations, Elizabeth Dole as secretary of transportation, and Margaret Heckler as secretary of health and human services.
But the commission said only 4.1 percent of Mr. Reagan's full-time appointees have been blacks, compared to 12 percent in the previous administration; and 8 percent of them women compared to 12.1 percent by President Carter.
In another statement, the commission criticized the present administration for making numerous efforts to reduce federal civil rights enforcement in education - where so many benefits or handicaps affect future income and assets.
Three of the six commission members are slated for replacement by Mr. Reagan, bringing his appointments to five. Legal arguments have been raised against his ability to dismiss members of a mandated bipartisan, independent body. Whatever the outcome, his designated lame ducks certainly have not stopped quacking.
Nor should they when the matter is as fundamental to the nation as civil rights. Mr. Reagan bows to no one in his expressions of the kind of concern for rights that all Americans should have. He has set in motion White House efforts to correct discriminatory laws one by one. Yet his administration has obviously failed to take the lead in this field that could convince the discriminated-against that he has their interests at heart. Think if he gave the word to his troops, as he has on other matters, that he wanted something done - and right now!