Last weekend marked the unofficial beginning of summer, normally a time for a freer and lighter style of clothing. But for too many black women, trying to beat the heat in comfortable clothing will almost surely subject them to the searing heat of street harassment.

I know that women are victimized by strangers all over the world, regardless of what they wear. But I would like to address a special concern to those black men who are making the District a living hell for their sisters.

Whatever black men may think of the attention they pay to women wearing shorts or skirts, the effect has nothing to do with complimenting them. Your lewd invitations and crude commands may seem funny to you, but the truth is that nothing comes closer to the slave-era mentality of white men toward black women.

Young black men yell at women who are mothers, "Come here, girl!" They whistle at women as if calling dogs. Even black children are not immune. I heard a grown man tell a 12-year-old, "I'll be back when you get a little older, baby."

God forbid that he should live that long.

The problem has become so severe in Washington that D.C. Police Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. is pressing his officers to enforce D.C. laws on disorderly conduct and indecent language more stringently.

"I understand what females are going through because I have a wife and daughter who have been intimidated on the street through nothing that they did," Fulwood said.

Lauren L. Joichim, 35, a lawyer and member of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center speakers bureau, says street harassment of women in Washington is worse than in other large cities where she has lived. And, she maintains, it is much worse for black women.

"I'd say that I'm exclusively harassed by black men," Joichim said. "We're {black women} considered by our harassers as the only people lower on the racial totem pole than themselves."

Some of the problem stems from a proliferation of panhandlers, one of whom tried to snatch the pocketbook of Fulwood's wife because she had not given the bum as much money as he wanted.

But don't think that it's only unemployed and homeless people who pose a threat. Middle-class black men are increasingly invading the privacy of black female colleagues. With power neckties and promotions, some of them feel that they have the right to actually touch the women.

It is the kind of violation of black womanhood that black men once died to prevent. And now, here we are, on some kind of misguided power trip, imitating age-old oppressors.

With teeth-sucking gestures in the office place as well as on the street, the professional black man must bear responsibility for engaging in this verbal version of black-on-black crime.

The way the situation now stands, with Fulwood's officers poised for a counterattack, black women could probably get relief by pressing charges. Take out a John Doe arrest warrant, give police a description of the assailant and let them know where the harassment occurred.

Women should always remember that it is against the law -- a felony, in fact -- for someone to threaten them with bodily harm.

But in the end, where does this kind of police action leave black people? With black men and women waging all-out war against one another. There has to be a better way. And it is, quite simply, for black men to begin treating black women like human beings.

This is not to say that men must suppress all desires to compliment or take notice of women they find attractive. But a smile and nod would be better than a drool and whistle.

Some psychologists suggest that street harassment is the black male's way of asserting his manhood in a society that devalues him. But if black men are supposedly looking for respect, they could not have picked a more self-defeating approach.

The black man who shows contempt for a black woman lets the world know that he has no respect for himself, and therefore is not worthy of it from anybody else.