I've been wondering how much self-programming and expectations of inferiority have affected the education of our black youth. Maybe the recent reports from the suburban jurisdictions surrounding Washington indicate that psychological factors are more important than we thought.

According to the Alexandria school district and those in Arlington, Fairfax, Prince George's and Montgomery counties, black students are significantly behind white students on standardized achievement tests. After reading these reports, I came across an article that sheds new light on this old problem.

Black performance problems, according to the authors, are caused in large part by a tendency to avoid intellectual competition.

This tendency, they say, is a psychological phenomenon that arises when the larger society projects an image of black intellectual inferiority and when that image is internalized by black people.

Finally, they say, society's persistence in ascribing intellectual inferiority to genetic causes intensifies the fears and doubts that surround this issue, especially in the face of data confirming poorer performance.

Entitled "Rumors of Inferiority," the article appeared in the Sept. 9 issue of The New Republic magazine and was written by Jeff Howard, a social psychologist, and Ray Hammond, a physician and minister.

Beginning with a traditional analysis, Howard and Hammond note impressive black historical achievement: Blacks survived slavery and oppressive emancipation before spurring the dismantling of legal segregation and the 1960s civil rights movement. Today, however, many blacks still suffer from disproportionately high poverty and joblessness and high rates of out-of-wedlock births.

Yet the authors feel that blacks could use their gains in education, economic and political status to improve these conditions "if they focus on some of the factors that keep them from managing their own circumstances."

While noting that some blacks, indeed, perform at the highest levels, they point to "pervasive evidence" (such as low test scores) to support their argument that the chief villain when blacks fail to progress is "intellectual underdevelopment."

One interesting point the authors make is that inferior performance and inferior ability are not the same thing.

"The performance gap is largely a behavioral problem," they write. "It is the result of a remediable tendency to avoid intellectual engagement and competition.

"Avoidance is rooted in the fears and self-doubt engendered by a major legacy of American racism: the strong negative stereotypes about black intellectual capability. Avoidance of intellectual competition is manifested most obviously in the attitudes of many black youths toward academic work . . . . "

The writers add an interesting twist to the already well-known correlation between expectations and performance.

"Negative expectancy first tends to generate failure through its impact on behavior, and then induces the individual to blame the failure on lack of ability, rather than the actual (and correctable) problem of inadequate effort. This misattribution in turn becomes the basis for a new negative expectancy."

The authors are swimming in murky psychological waters here. How can they prove that some blacks internalize feelings of inferiority? The truth is they can't.

But who can dispute that our communities haven't been able to inspire in our young the same commitment to intellectual competition that we've been able to inspire in athletics and entertainment?

The authors want blacks to take the lead in promoting a nationwide effort to dispel feelings of inferiority.

They say blacks should share positive rather than negative messages in a wide variety of situations: education, media and one-on-one contact.

And they suggest that communities develop strong positive attitudes toward intellectual competition, and that teachers, parents and other authority figures encourage young blacks to attribute their intellectual successes to ability and their failures to lack of effort.

Disparate test scores may continue to abound for awhile, but they're not the whole story.

Some may disagree with or be uncomfortable with the article, but it is an interesting analysis that takes us a step closer to truth.