GLANCING out the window of his office here at Duke University, C. Eric Lincoln leans back in his chair and takes a deep breath before responding to a hovering question: Why are black youths at risk?"The reasons are many," says the professor of religion and culture, one of the premier scholars of the black experience in America. "We can begin by noting the high risk that black youth run of unemployment," 50 to 60 percent nationwide, he says: "This, in turn, has its own accompanying fallout of problems." In the course of an hour, he takes this reporter on a mind journey through a weave of economic, social, political, and historical threads of the African-American experience, a subject he knows through and through. To describe his lengthy resume as impressive would be an understatement - honorary degrees, awards, articles, lectures, speeches. Dr. Lincoln has authored numerous books, including a collection of his poems and a novel. He has written on civil rights, religion, the arts. His most recent work, " The Black Church in the African American Experience" (Duke University Press), co-authored by Lawrence H. Mamiya, is an in-depth statistical survey and analysis of the black church in America. "You don't often hear of C. Eric, the man; you hear about C. Eric, the myth," says Dr. Alton Pollard, assistant professor of religion at Wake Forest University. He studied under Lincoln. "It's when you come in contact with the man that you know he's really human, fully human, and his human-ness spills into the lives of others." THE plight of black youth, primarily black males, has become a high-concentration concern for Lincoln, a United Methodist minister. It is a subject that weighs heavily on his work and outlook of the present and the future of the black community in the United States. Black youth are an "endangered species," he says, noting that although that phrase has become trite, the statistics support it. Those statistics are accelerating in a very negative way, he says. "Black youth are not only an endangered species but, statistically speaking, the whole successor generation is at risk." Sorting out some hows and whys from a whirlwind of causes and effects, Lincoln speaks in a commanding, speechlike manner: "We live in a society where success, self-fulfillment are largely measured in terms of levels of consumption, where the successful person - which may be read as the 'valued' person - is the one who has been able to amass all those little indices of success ... clothes, cars, houses, jewelry, liquor, whatever." But when a whole community is, in Lincoln's view, "locked out of the socially approved process" for acquiring status and appreciation in society, members of that community develop alternative means toward the same end. The problem begins early with alienation, Lincoln says, and because of this alienation, the black youth finds himself as a member of a counter culture. "Because of the fact that blacks are so often excluded from ... the race for success, self-validation, self-fulfillment, they find themselves developing alternative routes and this, in turn, leads to criminalization," Lincoln says. He continues: "So then we come up with some horror statistics, one being that at least a quarter of all black male youth will be criminalized before they reach 30. This means, in effect, that we may as well wipe out a quarter of the black male population for all intents and purposes, because once you are criminalized by the system it is very, very, very difficult to be forgiven or to be rehabilitated and to be readmitted. I shouldn't have said 'readmitted, he corrects himself, "because they were never ad mitted in the first place." The United States has the highest rate of incarceration of any nation in the world, Lincoln says. Of those who are incarcerated, most are black, he says. Another statistic: There are eight black men in jail in the US for every white man, yet blacks are only about 12 percent of the population, Lincoln says. "We are dealing with a problem that is absolutely devastating in its implications: We have criminalized a quarter of our black American [male] youth and, as if that were not bad enough, that bears its own train of even greater devastation. "Black life is cheap in the United States. This has always been the case. But it used to be that the most formidable threat to black life came either in white bed sheets and dunce caps or it came in the dubious blue of the white policeman, and it was never clearly determined which was the greater threat to black longevity. "But that isn't true anymore. The violence that takes away black life today is likely to originate in the apartment next door, on the street out front, in the hangout down the block, or from the hit wagon that cruises.... In short, it is black on black." Lincoln contends that "blacks kill blacks for the simple reason that they are least likely, much less likely, to pay the full penalty - if indeed they have to pay any penalty at all." But there is perhaps another reason why blacks kill blacks, he says sternly. A young black male who is unemployed, unrespected, and unwanted, has a very low self-esteem. "He knows he isn't anybody. He isn't going anywhere. He knows his life is not worth a great deal to society. And so he comes eventually to the conclusion that his life isn't worth very much to him, either. So when he gets a gun and he shoots down his mirror image bang, bang you're dead and I wish I were you he is at least making an exit statement: It's better to go out with a bang than with a whimper. "These kids who kill each other - [aged] 12, 13, 18 who have apparently no sense of remorse for such a loss - are killing themselves, and they know that they are not important." Lincoln's outlook can be traced to his statement: "The tragedy is that any culture which does not have a successive generation is already dead." WHAT are the solutions? Lincoln says he gets a little impatient with those who ask "What can we do?" "Obviously, the solution is to look at me the way you look at you," he says to this reporter, who is white. "No more, or no less, and you've got a solution. "The solutions that we try fall apart or go awry at precisely the point where we begin to say 'but...' and to institute what we think are little caveats but become bigger and bigger and bigger caveats and we are right back where we were.... There are no halfway measures that are going to solve the problems. Either we are going to reach the stars together or we are going to sink into the pit together." What about the black church's role? "If the black church has no potential, then God help us, because I do not see any other source upon which help is going to come quickly," says Lincoln. Yet he faults black churches as being primarily middle-class institutions that "don't want to get their skirts dirtied." "The black church has not been very avid in opening its arms and opening its resources to blacks who have been through the criminalization process. The Black Muslims have been far more effective in this instance than has the black church," he says. "But the black church doesn't have much of a choice now," he says. "The black church is going to have to make this problem [of endangered youth] one of its very highest priorities."