Three ringing cheers for the decision taken over the weekend to form a National Association of Black Organizations to mount a unified attack on the problems besetting black America.

As the NAACP said in calling the meeting of some 100 civic, social and civil-rights groups, it is time to "take control of our own destiny ... {and} attack the problems afflicting our community with the best weapon at our disposal -- black unity."

But the truth is that forming the coalition was the easy step. The difficult part will be deciding what to do: establishing priorities and the techniques for achieving them.

There is no dearth of possibilities: civil rights legislation, full-employment legislation, joint self-help undertakings to enhance academic achievement, an assault on the "glass ceiling" that thwarts the progress of black executives, black economic development, anti-drug efforts, political empowerment, moral renascence. All these things are deserving of attention.

But since any attempt to do everything at once is likely to mean that nothing gets done all that well, it makes sense to decide on one or two priority goals, at least for the next few years. What should they be?

A nine-member executive committee of the coalition will meet shortly to work out details. I wouldn't want to preempt the committee's deliberations, but I hope the members will pay some attention to what strikes me as a worthy top priority: rescuing the children of the underclass.

It seems clear to me that whatever the problems of black Americans generally, the problems of the inner city constitute a special case. And so many of those problems stem from the pessimism with which inner-city children view their future.

They drop out of school, or get through school with minimal academic effort, because they don't believe that academic exertion will make much difference in their lives. They become adolescent parents because they see no good reason for postponing, or even being particularly careful with, sexual activity. The sell drugs because the money is attractive and the risk of a police record seems small when measured against their chances of success in the legitimate world.

The boys especially are victims of this all-encompassing pessimism. They are unwanted, and often feared, by employers. The resultant joblessness means that they are economically useless (or worse) both to their families and as husbands to the mothers of their own children. And these children, especially the boys, grow up fatherless, never learning what it means to be a responsible husband and father, which means they are overwhelmingly likely to repeat the cycle of uselessness.

Whatever else the National Association of Black Organizations does, it ought to commit itself -- commit us -- to rescuing these luckless children.

And how might we do that? One place to begin would be to undertake a massive Big Brother/Big Sisters-style effort to match inner-city children with mentors, role models and guides from the black middle class. These adult counselors could, by their influence, their personal guidance and their own example, help our discouraged youngsters to see that they have it within their to break the chains of poverty and despair.

They could also be of enormous assistance in helping them to find jobs, job-training opportunities and scholarships, and in persuading the larger society to make more opportunities available. But their greatest contribution might be in helping the youngsters to understand and abandon the attitudes that limit their life chances.

It would also be well for us to understand -- and counter -- the rewards that accrue to inner-city youngsters for their deadly behavior: not just the money from crack sales and other unlawful activity, but the admiration of their peers. We need to find ways to offer status and other more tangible rewards to youngsters who behave as we think they ought to behave.

Instead of providing the most help for those children most in need of help, it might make sense to offer the most help to those for whom that help could make a permanent difference. I have referred to it as "skimming": identifying the young people who "present" themselves as exemplars of the behavior we urge and then giving them rewards consonant with their good behavior.

The behavior could be anything from perfect school attendance and good grades to volunteer work, good citizenship and general academic and social improvement; the rewards could range from status-symbol sneakers and spending cash to guarantees of scholarships and career-oriented jobs. The point is that the rewards must confer status within the children's own environment.

Obviously there are other worthwhile targets, including the academic underperformance of the children of the middle class, the economic underdevelopment of the black community and, yes, racism.

But the biggest problem in black America -- perhaps the biggest social and economic threat to the entire country -- is the plight of the children in the inner cities. It's time to mount a full-scale crusade to rescue them.