President Reagan's earnestness about his lifelong support for racial equality is evident. He has tried to convey the intensity of his feeling on a least three widely visible occasions recently -- a press conference, his State of the Union address, and an interview with Dan Rather.
And yet black leaders, and blacks in general, remain skeptical. Why?
The answer is clearly that Mr. Reagan's sincere words and the actions of his official family seem to go in different directions. First there was the flap over tax deductions for private and religious schools practicing racial exclusion. In that case Mr. Reagan characteristically took the blame and promised to remedy this subsidy for discrimination with new legislation. Chapter almost closed. But now the testimony of his attorney general on extension of the existing Voting Rights Act has started the talk of backpedaling on race equality all over again.
Given this situation, Mr. Reagan can clarify the matter most easily by repeating the decisiveness he showed in straightening out the school tax deduction question. But there may be some subtleties to deal with on the way to cutting the Gordian knot.
First, what do the President and his opponents agree on? They agree that there should be a lengthy extension of the Voting Rights Act; and that it should allow federal intervention when locations adopt rules for voting which discriminate.
That would seem to cover most of the ground. But it doesn't. To take but one outstanding point of controversy: supporters of a renewed voting act, who won a 389-to-24 vote in the House and who have 62 co-signers in the Senate, have written language into their bill which would define discrimination quite specifically. Their law would permit plaintiffs to prove a voting rights violation by showing that an election procedure ''results'' in discrimination. In practice that means whenever a court finds a sizable discrepancy between the strength of a racial group and the weight of its votes.
Attorney General William French Smith, meanwhile, is carrying the banner for the administration in an opposite direction. He testified this week that he would like to see the Senate bill (and eventually the joint Senate-House bill) permit action against a locality only when it can be proved that officials had the ''intent'' to disenfranchise some group.
The problem with the Smith approach is that ''intent'' is often as difficult to prove as ''malice'' or ''conspiracy.'' And so, supporters of the House bill argue, the law would be extended but left with few if any teeth.
If Mr. Reagan wants to down those suspicions about his own intent, he has a viable course open to him. That is to get Mr. Smith's department to look at ways of defining more precisely which kinds of ''results'' in any community's voting patterns show probable discrimination and which do not.
A case can be made, as the House language itself suggests, that mere comparison of voting strengths and, say, the number of minority officials on a city council does not prove discrimination. Even some former white segregationist politicians have turned to wooing black voters in recent years; so it is just as possible to have disproportionate numbers of white officials elected by blacks as it is for white voters in large numbers to back Tom Bradley or Andy Young.
What Mr. Reagan ought to be asking his legal aides to come up with is a version just as specific as the House bill but even more useful in defining ways in which voting pattern ''results'' can be lab tested for discrimination.
Then Mr. Reagan's own feelings will once more take shape in legislation.