AS THE BLACK MOTHER of a 13-year-old son, I am chilled by the murders of children in the District. As a sociologist who has spent a great portion of my career trying to find solutions to the problems facing poor blacks, I find myself trying to explain a new kind of terror, pain and confusion.

Like many District mothers and fathers I have talked to, I have reached my boiling point and I say enough is enough. We cannot continue to allow young men to maim, to kill and to be killed. Their lives are worth far more than the jackets and radios that often spark these fatal fights -- even if some of these young people no longer believe this to be so.

The senseless killings and permanent maimings of black teenagers by their peers have caused a crisis in our community. Dramatic action is needed to resolve it. But apart from a protest demonstration organized by the mother of one of the dead youths, the killings have been met with far less response than one would expect. I'm not hearing what I'd like to hear from the political leaders of this community.

The violence has escalated to the level where young black men are being killed almost routinely by other blacks. Some neighborhoods in the District are so terrorized by the violence that we are rapidly approaching street anarchy -- just this week police took a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun from a child of 12, the 178th weapon confiscated in this month alone.

What has happened to our city's youth to make them behave like this? In recent weeks I have talked to community leaders, youth workers and the young people themselves. I found much that is chilling, much that is sad. But I also found at least some grounds for hope.

A young man, elegant in Timberlane boots and silver chains, swaggered into one youth center I visited. "I hear there is someone here who wants to talk an authority on the streets," he said. "I'm an authority. Want do you want to know?"

This handsome teenager is not someone you would want to cross. He, and others like him can be dangerous. Yet, by the time I finished talking with him about how he viewed life and death on the streets, he was laughing shyly, looking like the child that, in many ways, he still is.

In my conversation with this young man and others I was astonished at how little hope they have for the future. In one group of over a dozen poor teenagers I talked to, only one was optimistic that the killings can be stopped. "I would put a police trailer on every corner where they sell drugs because the drugs are the problem," he said. The others accept the violence as an inevitable fact of life. One 15-year-old said, "Nothing will stop it unless those who are doing it are locked up in Lorton or are six-feet under." My "street authority" said he would buy three Uzi's, go to each corner and mow down all the drug dealers.

Anyone who reads the newspapers knows what the problem is: In little over a month Kendall Merriweather, a 17-year-old Ballou High School student was shot over his boom box. Mark Settles was shot at the tender age of 12, allegedly by his uncle, and his German Shepherd was found shot dead beside him. The crowning blow for me came when 15-year-old Sean Smith was murdered over his jacket.

A lot of young people accept this violence as almost normal because they are faced with it in their homes where they have grown up seeing relatives argue and fight. Limited verbal skills, high levels of stress and the frustration that comes from a lifetime of extreme poverty in the midst of a wealthy society lead many of these youths to resort to violence to release pent-up anger. Many now feel they have to arm themselves in self-defense. As a teenage girl put it, "Everybody else has a gun so you'd better have one if you want to protect yourself." A 19-year-old male told me, "You can get shot and killed without selling drugs or from being a high school drop-out. Nobody is safe even if you have a gun. The police are not that safe. Anytime people kill you over jackets and radios, they'll kill you over anything. Life doesn't mean anything."

Some young black women arm themselves with large knives in self defense. A director of a program for at-risk youths gave me a lethal-looking hunting knife with a four-inch blade. The knife was one of several the director had confiscated from a group of girls who, at a Halloween party she gave, had tried to drag one of their pregnant peers to a nearby graveyard. They meant to beat the girl up to "teach her a lesson" for having caused another of their friends to miscarry by a similar beating.

Sadly, self-defense for many of these youths means they may stab or shoot someone for calling them an insulting name, or if someone accidentally pushes against them in a crowd. A counselor at a youth center said "they feel they have to defend their pride, their sense of self and what they own against insults most of us would ignore." With the availability of guns and the devaluation of human life, fist-fights have been replaced by shoot-outs. As a Houston teenager said, "It's better to kill someone than to have to fight it out all night."

Still, the picture is not all dismal. Somehow, miraculously perhaps, some inner city youths manage to stay relatively untouched by the turmoil and decay all around them. They stay in school, go on to college, get and hold decent jobs. A still larger, middle group of youngsters could go either way. They would like to avoid the street gangs and drop-outs but they are unsure of the way. And even among those who have dropped out, many don't want to be what they are. I asked the street authority what he wanted to be. "A construction worker," he said. Then he laughed at the impossibility of his aspiration.

The vulnerability of these young people was driven home to me by the director of a program for "at-risk" youth who mentioned to me that many kids in the program did not receive a single present for Christmas. Even the poorest family will manage to buy a toy for a toddler -- not to mention the food-basket, free-toy circuit that reaches welfare families with small children. But these teenagers are not on anyone's list. And it hurts. They talk tough, but you can see the hurt in their eyes, the director said. One teenager even admitted he had cried. A Christmas present may seem like a penny-ante concern. But such things are critical for the human spirit. It's another blow to an already fragile sense of self-worth.

The despair that has enveloped many poor communities is, however, a relatively new phenomenon. Back in the '60s I conducted research on poor black girls and found they shared the same hopes and aspirations as girls in the middle class. What they lacked were the foundations and pillars that middle class youths take for granted -- decent clothes, educated parents, a secure home environment, and role models.

I do not know what happened to these girls, but the chances are slim that they achieved their middle-class dreams. The children in Washington who are killing and being killed are the children of these poor blacks girls of the '60s -- a generation that had fewer foundations and supports to hinge their dreams on than any other in recent memory. That generation reached adulthood when there were fewer jobs available for unskilled workers and extended families and tightly-knit neighborhoods were rapidly disappearing. That generation had no civil rights or black power movement to give it hope, pride and a strong sense of self-worth. Middle class prosperity helped the few lucky ones to move to the suburbs. Many of the visible role models that had served as living proof that one could rise above poverty left with them.

The invasion of drugs into poor black neighborhoods did more than anything else to destroy the traditional values and hopes of families already weakened by joblessness and severe poverty. This modern day plague created an unprecedented level of black-on-black crime where the elderly are preyed upon and children are recruited to buy and to sell drugs.

Although many parents of violent youths are working poor rather than welfare families, they find themselves unable to prevent their children from making quick and easy money by selling drugs, especially when they don't have the money to buy them the expensive clothes, jewelry, boom boxes and cars that are popular among their peers. The parents' authority is further undermined by the tremendous amount of violence their children see in the streets, and in the media.

The 19-year-old "street authority" said if he is away from home for several days during which there is a news report of a killing of an unidentified young black male, his mother is sure it's him until he returns home. Do her fears upset him? "Yes," he said, "it bothers me a little but I can't stay away {from the streets}." As a middle class parent, it is hard for me even to imagine what it would be like to have to cope with the routine worries of his mother.

Yet, despite these enormous problems, I have not met a poor black mother over the past 20 years who did not want her children to do better in life than she did. Unfortunately, children aren't influenced that much by their parents' dreams unless the parents can help them to achieve them. Poor children soon realize their parents cannot afford to send them to college if they can't always pay the rent or keep the food from running out before payday. A 17-year-old told me he stopped dreaming of going to college when he turned 16. "By then I knew it was all over," he said.

Dashed dreams lead quickly to cynicism, hopelessness and despair. Unable to climb the ladder of legitimate success, young people are more easily lured into the fast lane of selling drugs for quick cash. Expensive Gor-Tex jackets ($100 and up), Timberlane boots ($145), gold chains and BMW's help to boost the flagging self esteem of young people who feel they cannot achieve otherwise and who find reinforcement for that belief in the materialistic values of the larger society.

The sanctity of human life has always held special value for a people who held on to life with such tenacity through the long, hard years of slavery. It is one reason why young mothers in the black community resist putting their babies up for adoption. But the old values regarding the sanctity of human life have clashed head-on with a new culture in which life is up for grabs.

I find it hard to believe, much less accept the wanton disregard some of today's youths have for human life. How can they can boast of being able to kill someone without getting their clothes bloody, or brag that they do contract killings for $200? How can their consciences let them sleep at night? When I was a child my 9-year-old cousin accidentally killed another cousin while playing with a gun. I remember feeling sorrier for my surviving cousin than for my cousin who had been killed because I knew his conscience would bother him for the rest of his life.

But those inner-city youth who perpetrate today's violence grow up in a subculture where they make their own rules, where nothing is sacred. All too many of them know, personally, inmates serving prison sentences, i.v. drug abusers dying of AID's, friends or relatives who have been treated for gunshot or stab wounds, or who have suffered from drug overdoses. When I asked some of these teenagers how it feels when one of their friends is killed, they shrug. "That's just what happens." But when you press them they admit "it hurts." Still there is the sense of hopelessness. "What can you do?" Only a great change in their own personal circumstances would spark a new optimism and hope in them.

I am tired of seeing Washington ambulance workers load bullet-riddled corpses of young black men into ambulances on the evening news. But, unlike some people with whom I have talked, I do not intend to become so desensitized to the problem that I will start turning off the television set to avoid the problem.

There are no simple and magical solutions to this complex problem. But there are many proven ways for dealing with important parts of it. We do not need yet another Blue Ribbon Panel to study the problem or lay out a 15-point program for action. Instead all of us in this community must pitch in to do everything we can to help, no matter how small our efforts seem. As a first step, we must accept the fact that we are faced with a major crisis that threatens the entire city. The most dramatic action, short of calling out the National Guard, is needed.

Here are some ways to begin:

The first is stepping up efforts to take guns away from teenagers. The police can't do this alone. They need strong community support, concern and vigilance. One way to provide it is by recruiting young black men to form Neighborhood Watch programs as an adjunct to the police.

Next we need better ways to deal with high school drop-outs -- and to keep that critical middle group of kids from making the wrong choices before it's too late. There are models to draw from other cities and experimental federal programs such as alternative schools and modified Job Corps programs. As Lee Brown, Houston's Chief of Police points out, "We will not be successful in diverting them away from crime unless decent paying, meaningful jobs are made available to them."

More churches, schools, recreation centers and other institutions need to open their doors for after-school "learning centers" where youths can have a structured place to do their homework, and enjoy recreational activities under the supervision of caring adults recruited from those communities. Many adults who have already successfully raised their own children have much to offer to such programs.

Parents, schools, churches, recreation centers and other institutions and individuals have to do more to teach young people how to handle conflict and stress without resorting to violence -- again there are models from other cities. Many young people I talked to said that the few adults who do talk to them are not seriously interested in their views and, more often than not, talk down to them. We should set up youth forums and enlist the many young black leaders in our community as peer counsellors to help these young people air their views.

Chief Brown also suggests that black leaders call a national summit on crime to share experiences and begin to develop new approaches. But first and foremost, there must be a call to arms to restore order in the streets and to make them safe again. If we do not act now, the price to be paid will be incalculable insofar as the loss of human life and potential are concerned. Washington must not become another Detroit, the teenage murder capital of the world. We must find ways for our teenagers to achieve their potential without being dragged down by the undertow of crime and violence.

Joyce Ladner, professor of social work at Howard University, was chair of the Mayor's Blue Ribbon Panel on Teenage Pregnancy Prevention for D.C.