BLACK AMERICANS continue to be portrayed as lost children waiting for a government Moses to save them from racism and economic deprivation. But if racism ended tomorrow, the plight of poor blacks would remain largely unchanged. Single black female heads of households would still be single black female heads of households; black children with babies wouldn't be swept into instant adulthood, and thousands of imprisoned black felons would still be locked up.

The sad reality is that in spite of civil rights gains, the working class blacks who were the foot soldiers of the movement have not shared proportionately in the victories. In spite of increased political power, and the emergence of a black middle class, in spite of a mammoth welfare industry, more than one third of all black Americans are still threatened with permanent dependency and poverty.

In the past, despite hardships and barriers, each generation of black Americans has managed to measurably improve conditions for those that followed. But now continued progress of blacks as a group is threatened by tragic realities:

Some 55 percent of all black babies are born to single mothers. Of this number, one-third of these babies are born to teenagers who are socially, economically and psychologically ill-equipped to provide that necessary next step up the economic ladder.

Another one-third of black Americans is facing permanent welfare dependency. Blacks, in short, are confronted with a crisis equal to that of slavery.

Households headed by black females had only 62 percent of the income of their white counterparts, a figure that has remained unchanged for more than a decade.

Nothing is more important to the health and future of this nation than to find legitimate solutions to the problems of the black underclass. Rhetorically, the civil rights establishment uses those problems to lobby for government aid programs. But those programs, although enacted with the best of intentions, often have little impact on the plight of the underclass. Rather they benefit the black middle class.

Even those government programs that do have some marginal benefit to the black underclass are paid for by them in the coin of increased dependency and declining self-confidence and resourcefulness. Although conventional liberals hotly contest the argument, I believe public welfare and many other social programs promote dependence and destroy individual initiative.

The framers of these programs meant for them to be emergency ambulance services, not the entire transportation system that they have often become. The War on Poverty was intended, among other things, to end the dependence on welfare of those able to work. In this respect, it failed.

If black America is to achieve its rightful place in American society, it will not be by virtue of what white America grants to black Americans but because of what black Americans do for themselves. We must end our preoccupation with what white America feels about or does to us. To paraphrase Harvard economist Glenn Loury, while all of our energy is directed to the struggle against the "enemy without," the "enemy within" goes relatively unchecked.

This enemy within appears to be blind obedience to the orthodoxy of the past 20 years that blames racial discrimination for all problems faced by blacks and reflexively calls for an expansion of the welfare state to accomplish what civil rights legislation has failed to do. The enemy within is the mistaken equation of political power with economic parity. No other ethnic group in American society -- not Jews, Japanese or Jamaicans -- has achieved financial status and influence from politics. Rather they have accumulated wealth through business ownership.

Despite the millions of dollars spent for downtown development of Washington, D.C. under home rule, with both a black-controlled city council and school board, one is hard-pressed to find a black-owned business. What is needed is not political muscle but a strategy for economic development and an entrepreneurial spirit.

Attempts to challenge this conventional wisdom, however, result in the imposition of a rigid gag rule by black civil rights and political leaders wedded to this approach. Economic progress cannot be achieved without lifting the gag rule imposed on dissent within the black community and encouraging spirited debate.

Those who stifle dissent violate the rich tradition of debate within the black community begun at the turn of the century by W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. The two black leaders in person and print argued over the appropriate direction for black development.

In the early '60s, when the civil rights movement was faced with its deepest crisis, Martin Luther King Jr. was not reluctant to question the thinking of other civil rights leaders. In his letter from a Birmingham jail he challenged his liberal allies when he wrote, "The Negro's greatest stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Council or the KKK, but the white moderate . . . . Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will." King attacked the substance of their thoughts and actions, not the personalities or the motivation of those with whom he disagreed.

King's dissent benefited the black community and ultimately American society. He understood that different times call for reexamining basic assumptions. Today, the notion that we must challenge is the argument that the solution to most of the problems faced by blacks can be combated by ending racism. If this notion were true, it would follow that black progress is related to, if not determined by, the extent to which whites end their racist behavior. Racism is declining but the condition of the black underclass is notimproving.

Members of the civil rights establishment -- the NAACP, the Urban League, the Congressional Black Caucus, Jesse Jackson's PUSH -- often cite poverty as a condition inextricably linked to racism. The argument is made that racial integration, nurtured by preferential government programs, will ultimately bring blacks into the economic mainstream. This strategy has not worked well for all black groups, however.

According to current Bureau of the Census reports on income and poverty, the income of two-worker black households was 78 percent ($9,721) of their white ($12,543) counterparts in 1969. By 1980, the gap had narrowed to 84 percent ($22,795) compared to ($27,238). By contrast, the income for black female -- headed households in 1969 was 62 percent ($3,576) of their white counterparts ($5,754); and in 1980 it had not changed.

It would be wrong -- indeed criminal -- to suggest that the civil rights movement was incorrect in pursuing its goals, but it must be understood that all classes of blacks did not benefit equally. Therefore, a distinction must be made between policies and programs of social progress that lump all blacks together. We must take a new approach in designing policies that address the needs of the underclass. Even if one operates on the assumption that racial discrimination is one of the prime contributors to the size of the black underclass, would ending racism result in an improvement in their condition? If a person is stabbed with a knife, pulling the knife out is not tantamount to curing the victim.

The condition of the black underclass must be addressed by making it possible for low-income black citizens to participate in greater numbers in the mainstream of the American economy and not by the expansion of the social welfare state. The cure for the black underclass is development of black enterprises that will strengthen the economic base of black neighborhoods and put more money into black pockets.

No government or other outside source can do for blacks -- or any other group -- what they are unwilling to do for themselves. Many blacks champion the cause of maintaining the historically black colleges for instance. Yet when Meharry Medical College was on the brink of bankruptcy, it was the Reagan administration that provided the money to save it. Where were the thousands of black doctors who are alumni of Meharry? Fisk University is now in a similar predicament, and the administration once again has been asked to bail it out. Where are the Fisk graduates?

Our salvation lies in self-help. It is time to approach the needs of the black underclass from a different perspective, one that is cognizant of the existing strengths within the black community; one that recognizes the abilities and ingenuity of individuals and groups in handling their own affairs; one that keeps government intervention to a minimum. Those experiencing the problem should play a primary role in designing solutions regardless of their educational backgrounds. Above all, the black community must disentangle itself from the welfare professionals whose objective is to maintain clients. Those who purport to serve the black poor must be held accountable and must offer measurable programs for improving the conditions of the underclass. We must never forget that our ultimate goal is economic independence and self-sufficiency.

There are important lessons to be drawn from the past about how blacks achieved in the midst of a hostile racial environment. We know about those who fought against slavery but little about those who fought on the economic battlefront.

In 1863, when more than 1,000 blacks were fired from the loading docks in Baltimore, they responded by forming the Chesapeake and Maine Railroad and Dry Dock Company. That company operated successfully for 18 years. In Philadelphia, because blacks were excluded from borrowing money to start their own businesses, they started 10 building and loan associations. Black real estate companies flourished in New York City.

Even if American society has become more complex, we can still be guided by the spirit that informed our black forebears generations ago.

The first step toward progress for black Americans is to end the litany of despair from the civil rights establishment that constantly portrays us as a group of helpless victims continually at the mercy of the whim and caprice of Big Daddy government and looks to others to solve our problems.

Black progress has been achieved through creative and innovative responses to racism and oppression. The elitist notion that only people with formal training and professional degrees have legitimate answers must be challenged. J. D. Gaskin, with only a fifth-grade education, became one of America's first black millionaires. He expressed this idea well when he said, "It is better to say 'I is rich,' than 'I am poor.'"

Rather than accept solutions parachuted in by middle-class professional service providers, efforts must be taken to recognize and expand what is already taking place in neighborhoods by indigenous organizations and grass-roots leaders. These groups have unique, first- hand knowledge about problems, experience and resources within their communities.

Successful neighborhood efforts flourish today in black neighborhoods, homes, churches and Masonic organizations. The United House of Prayer of Washington, D.C., has built more low-income housing in the city of Washington than both the city and the federal governments combined. Its policy is to buy choice inner-city land, stave off gentrification and build low-to- moderate income housing for community residents and church members. The program launches regular "building drives" to collect money for property acquisition and construction. These properties house many low-income families at rents they can afford.

Likewise, blacks have started more than 300 neighborhood-based, independent schools all across the nation where some pupils are outperforming their public school counterparts. In one local public housing development, residents have made it possible for more than 500 of their children to go on to college and other post-secondary schools where previously only two had contiued their education beyond high school. Neighborhood-based ventures have sprung up all over the country in the form of adoption agencies, security businesses, schools, computer firms, grocery stores and banks.

Many government social programs are counterproductive because they discourage the work ethic and foster dependency on public assistance. For example, public housing, a $4 billion a year federal assistance program, has been responsible for herding low-income families into high-rise buildings that breed crime and frustration. As a result, public housing is most often viewed as housing of last resort, riddled with crime, property damage, poverty and illness.

There are, however, many residents who have lived in housing projects their entire lives and remain there by choice. In some cities -- like Washington, Boston, New Orleans, St. Louis and Louisville -- where public housing authorities have allowed residents to manage public housing units, dramatic changes have taken place. Crime rates are down; teenage pregnancies have declined, in the District of Columbia's Kenilworth/Parkside development they are down 50 percent since 1982; in the same project, the percentage of welfare recipients has declined 46 percent in the same three-year period; the number of female-headed households has decreased in the resident-managed projects in all of these cities, administrative costs are down, vacancies and evictions are down; in the Corcoran Plaza project in St. Louis, 330 jobs have been created in the last five years, and in the resident-managed projects in all of these cities, rent collections are up from 30 to 100 percent in the past five years. These successes can be ascribed to the residents assuming responsibility for their own lives.

Inner city resident leaders in several public housing developments have successfully instituted everything from sound resident management practices to job, training, health and day care programs. In at least one instance -- St. Louis -- the residents constructed new housing. In another -- Washington's Kenilworth/Parkside -- seven thriving small businesses were started; they now employ 94 community residents, many of whom had been on public welfare.

True, these are islands of excellence in a vast and turbulent sea. However, our challenge is to remove old-line policies that inhibit self-help efforts and instead appeal creatively to that positive spirit in every human that craves self-sufficiency and independence.

Blacks are at a turning point in history. The era of the great civil rights marches is over. Although blacks, in fact all Americans, owe a tremendous debt to those whose sacrifices won passage of civil rights legislation and aroused hopes that blacks would finally enter the mainstream of U.S. society, the old strategies have run their course. New efforts must focus on ending dependence on government and encouraging the growing movement among blacks to rely on themselves for an improved life.