A prominent Washington businessman was lamenting the state of black ownership of real estate in downtown Washington.

"You know, in a city that is 70 percent black, not one building in downtown Washington is owned by a black person," he said.

Worse yet, he added, with the exception of some blacks trying to get a piece of the property at Gallery Place and one black resident who owns a piece of the Metro Center property, the ball game is over.

Blacks -- who once had a golden opportunity to get in on downtown real estate when it was much cheaper -- have simply missed the boat. Now they have been cut out of the market, along with everyone else, by the British, Germans and Japanese, who are paying up to 20 percent more for buildings than their assessed value.

Add to that the situation with the new immigrants, the Asians, Central Americans and Africans, who are coming into the city, taking service jobs that few blacks seem to want, and parlaying their money into successful business investments. Workers who came to Washington five years ago, speaking no English, now own restaurants and wholesale outlets. In many cases, their children are graduating at the top of their classes in school.

Local black residents, once again, seem cut out of the picture.

In an article published in Inc. magazine not long ago, Joel Kotkin posed this question:

"Why have other minority groups recently found their way to the great middle class while blacks still find themselves at or near the bottom rung of the economic ladder?"

Television talk show host Tony Brown answered this way:

"You can talk about the other problems of our community, but the real cause is that we have simply failed to get into business."

Bondie Gambrell, a black real estate investor and developer, added that "blacks have not had the mentality to do what the Koreans and the Hispanics are doing. They haven't wanted to venture out on their own. They have relied on other people to make opportunities."

Robert Hill, a black historian at the University of California, went even further, tracing the lack of an entrepreneurial tradition to Africa and slavery in America.

Africa, Hill notes in Kotkin's story, is a more communitarian society in which notions of private property have never been so entrenched as in Europe or North America.

"The culture of capitalism is just not part of our African heritage," Hill maintains.

Looked at this way, you get the feeling that maybe most black Americans ought to pack it all up, indeed, go back to Africa. Opportunities have been missed. And there is precious little chance of recovering, say, a piece of the downtown Washington rock.

But opportunities continue to make themselves available. The high-technology industry is booming, and black business leaders are finding their niches.

Andrew Brimmer, president of a Washington economic and financial consulting firm, completed a study in 1974 in which he discussed skills among blacks in "unusual" areas.

Programmers and computer operators drew heavily on skills required among mathematicians. That coincided with a large output of mathematicians from black colleges, Brimmer said. At the same time, major computer firms aggressively recruited minorities with those skills.

Also, in the growing Washington suburbs, many black business leaders appear poised to get in on the ground floor of real estate development -- which is probably a smarter investment now than entering the downtown Washington market.

Moreover, many highly educated blacks no longer seem so inclined to take the conservative, career approach to earning a mere income, but are more willing to take the risk in business, where there is greater chance of amassing wealth.