Dear Dr. Poussaint:

Many psychiatrists always talk about the low self-esteem or poor self-image of black youths, but I think they may be way off base. My eyes and ears tell me that many black youths in the street act superior to others in their attitude and behavior. Even the way some black teenagers strut shows a lot of bravado and self-assurance.

I'm the owner of a small clothes shop and many of my young black customers are arrogant and have no trouble speaking their minds even in a disrespectful way. In my view, young blacks act too conceited and this low self-esteem stuff is a lot of bunk. R. S., Washington.

Dear R. S.:

Your observations about some black youths may be correct, but your analysis of their behavior may be too simplistic and superficial.

Often the most conceited and arrogant people are those concealing deep-seated feelings of inferiority and inadequacy.Such individuals adopt a facade of overstated self-confidence as a cover-up which they themselves are often unaware of.

I'm sure you have been acquainted with people who, because they have an obvious personal insecurity, attempt to compensate for it. They usually give themselves away unknowingly because they overcompensate. For instance, the undersized boy is always acting tough and picking fights with bigger boys acts this way to show that he can physically match up to the other boys.

Another example would be the recent immigrant who puts on airs and acts superior to those just coming off the boat from the old country. Or even the student who has a deep fear of failing but acts extremely nonchalant and blase when taking exams. This type of cover-up behavior serves as a defense in order to block more painful feelings of inferiority.

Thus the arrogant black youths you mentioned may not really feel positive self-esteem but rather the opposite, particularly if their attitude and behavior indicates they protest too much. It's quite common for oppressed people to be overconcerned about their status in society and to be particularly sensitive to respectful recognition from others.

In some cases, a black who is expecting racial rejection may become overassertive, outspoken or arrogant so as to protect himself from feeling that he may be mistreated by whites or other blacks. This is an "I'll get you before you get me" attitude. Most people use this defense at one time or another, but it may become exaggerated in people who experience racial discrimination.

I wonder what a scientifically administered self-concept scale would show if it were given to the youngsters you describe. I have a hunch it would not demonstrate the high self-esteem you suggested. If one really has a sense of pride, there would be no internal psychological need to be cocky and haughty. Self-respect usually breeds respect for others and a display of courtesy.

The bravado of black youths may enable them to struggle more effectively in this society. Assertiveness is a potentially more productive response than docility, withdrawness or apathy. The confident facade is a way of fighting back and saying, "I am somebody."

The behavior you described may not be related only to race. It's quite common for adolescents who aren't yet fully secure as adults to "strut" and boisterously display their adulthood.

This may reveal itself in teenagers' imitation of what they imagine to be adult posturings. Since they are new at the game of being an adult, some of their new found sense of grown-up identity may show up in exaggerated and distorted forms. They are searching and testing themselves with other adults and institutions.

Most adolescents go through a period that many of us would describe as "arrogant." This is evident when parents make remarks such as "why don't they ever listen" or "they act like they know everything" or "you can't tell them anything."

As adolescents mature, they reach an equilibrium in which most of their bravado softens or disappears. Adults must give them direction and also display enormous patience to cope with many of them.

So don't be misled by the posturing of black youths. It's most likely a cover-up for a real sense of vulnerability and insecurity.

We have a long way to go before racial discrimination is eliminated and before black youths will rid themselves of all vestiges of inferior feelings. Copyright (c) ,Alvin F. Poussaing and James P. Comer are psychiatrists and the authors of the book "Black Child Care." Dr. Poussaint is associate professor of psychiatry and associate dean for student affairs at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Comer is professor of child psychiatry and associate dean for student affairs at Yale University School of Medicine, 1979, Summit Press Syndicate