WITH homicide the leading cause of death among young black men, declining life expectancy rates, and a disproportionate number in prison, black males are increasingly being termed an ``endangered species.'' ``The economic condition of black males is worse now than it was just after Reconstruction,'' says Wade Nobles, executive director of the Institute for the Advanced Study of Black Family Life and Culture.
Cities from Boston to Seattle are burgeoning with programs that reach out to young African-American males to try to stem the tide of violence, unplanned pregnancy, and school dropouts.
Milwaukee is experimenting with a public school for black males.
The Urban League's 114 affiliates have 55 programs dealing with young black men.
``We still have not stopped teen pregnancy initiatives for girls, but people got excited about focusing on males because of their involvement in so many other negative life-threatening activities,'' says Ruth Terrell.
Ms. Terrell is director of Youth Resources for the Urban League.
In the lobby of a downtown office building filled with gleaming marble and chandeliers, Boston's black elite recently gathered at a forum entitled, ``Success and Survival of the African-American Male.''
Sponsored by the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, the forum was called to find ways of taking black men off the endangered species list.
The United States work force by the year 2000 will consist largely of members of minorities, says Joan Wallace-Benjamin, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, and the country cannot afford to keep them out in the cold.
``A lot of the theory and techniques about how to ensure their success is already out there,'' says Mrs. Wallace-Benjamin.
``The most important thing is for our community and society to commit to seeing that change happens,'' she asserts.
Focusing on the strengths of the African-American culture is very important, says Dr. Nobles, who is a professor of black studies at San Francisco State University.
Nobles was the key speaker at the recent Urban League gathering in Boston.
For black males to succeed, he says, the ``de-legitimization of black culture'' in schools has to stop.
``The images of black men are such that we don't know the black genius that is out there,'' he says. ``To be intelligent is to be un-black. We have to address that.''
Nobles says that more schools need an Afro-centered curriculum and that social workers, police officers, teachers, and others dealing with black youths should know more about the Afro-American culture of the children they interact with.
But the primary responsibility for change, he says, lies with the black family. Parents have to start motivating their children and protecting their learning, says Nobles.
``We must regroup and reclaim responsibility,'' he explains. ``Men have to not let racism prevent them from understanding they are responsible for raising black men.''
Jeffrey Howard, president of the Efficacy Institute, a nonprofit organization that works to promote the development of minority children in public schools, says that the force for change must come from the generation that reaped the most benefits of the civil rights movement - baby boomers.
``We have challenges at least as great as that movement,'' says Dr. Howard. ``We need [another] movement to save black children. We need to set children up to find greatness in their time.''
Clear academic objectives are necessary, he says, so children can know what's needed to function, and ``clean, well-run sophisticated organizational structures that focus on NBK - nothing but kids.''
And, he says, the question of inferiority must be dealt with. ``There are too many cases where we've internalized the idea of inferiority,'' says Howard. ``What do kids call each other? Dumb, stupid. We have to purge that.''
Dr. Theresa Perry, undergraduate dean of Wheelock College, says, ``In order for any African-American child to succeed in school, he or she has to negotiate three separate, distinct, and often contradictory roles - membership in an African-American cultural community, his or her status as a member of a historically oppressed group, and membership in mainstream society.
``The operative culture of far too many schools asks of African-American boys not only that they possess the dominant culture, but also as a condition for participation that they leave at the door their black male cultural identity.''
She quotes James Baldwin: ``A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white.
``Black people have lost too many black children that way.''