We must get personally involved in transforming American culture.

The bloody plague of violence in our cities -- a record 703 homicides last year in the Washington area, and records broken in eight other cities -- has me outraged, saddened and distressed at the "culture of callousness" on our streets.

I am outraged that the ugly underbelly of American culture -- poverty, drugs, discrimination, alcohol abuse -- has produced a brutal disregard for human life and a full-blown national crisis. I am saddened because a generation of young black men is being decimated -- nearly 8,000 homicides were recorded in 1990. America's homicide rate has already reached the casualty levels of the Vietnam War. I am distressed because America has not only lost vast human potential in these needless deaths but has also expended enormous sums of public funds -- an unnecessary and costly drain on our resources -- in trying to curb the violence.

Last summer I called for a comprehensive national dialogue on the crisis of the black male, and directed my department to undertake several projects as a first step in our larger commitment to help address the problems confronting our minority males. Today the dramatically worsening circumstances demand that we broaden the scope and accelerate the tempo of that dialogue and the accompanying action. As a starting point, we have to acknowledge the full extent of the crisis -- the full extent of the sheer desperation:

One-third of blacks live in a poverty of means and opportunity.

One-half of blacks live in inner-city areas with a high incidence of disrupted families, poor schools, crowded substandard housing, unemployment and a pervasive drug culture.

Life expectancy for blacks is decreasing -- black babies are twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthday. Increasingly, "the face of black poverty is the face of a child."

The homicide rate for young black males is seven times higher than for white males.

Since 1959 the earning capacity of black high school graduates has declined -- 43 percent are below the poverty level.

Birthrates among young black girls are almost five times higher than the rate for white girls. Sixty-two percent of black children are born into fatherless households.

The president and the Department of Health and Human Services have initiated programs and grants totaling millions of dollars, and likely will develop more. But governmental initiatives alone will not solve the problem. It is now necessary for all of America to join the battle for the soul of America's inner cities so they can become decent, humane environments for families. In this regard, I want to assure Washington's new mayor, Sharon Pratt Dixon, that we will cooperate in helping our community, the nation's capital, achieve her goal of "moving beyond its problems to embrace its potential."

We must listen to wisdom. Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, the late president of Morehouse College, stated, "It is not your environment, it is you -- the quality of your mind, the integrity of your soul and the determination of your will -- that will decide your future and shape your life." We must get this message to our children and young people in every way we can, with the conviction of its irrefutable truth.

We must emphasize character. We must teach our young people that character is the capacity to forgo short-run personal gratification in order to achieve long-term accomplishment. Character also includes the courage, determination and fortitude to succeed and to fulfill dreams despite external circumstances. Parents need to show children through guidance and example that a life of character is satisfying, fulfilling and rewarding.

We must maintain and strengthen families. Converging trends of the past two decades have weakened families. Fewer people are getting married, and those who do are divorcing at higher rates. The number of children born to married couples is decreasing while surging numbers of children are born out of wedlock. We must work to fashion a culture that will encourage and support family formation and stability. Raised with insufficient adult supervision and guidance, many of our youth have an inadequate sense of family or community. Parents need to be selective about television and other diversions: many children and adolescents spend more time watching television than with family, school, church or friends.

We must empower our youth with hope and the belief that they can succeed. Raised in a climate of instant gratification, many of our youth think the American dream is out of their reach, and they feel victimized -- a sure route to demoralization and loss of self-esteem. The tentacles of poverty and ignorance choke off hope; the venom of drugs destroys all that is humane. Without hope or humanity, many of our youths roam the streets wreaking cruel, unfeeling violence. We must all come together to help minority youth build a vision of the future in which they are viewed as solutions, not problems.

The bottom line is: We must get personally involved in the transformation of American culture.

Today's murders eventually fade into the recesses of memory. But for the grief-stricken families, life has been irrevocably changed. So, too, has life changed for those who can no longer walk freely through their neighborhoods.

Life must change also for all of us who care about our country -- and ourselves. If we are to preserve our own humanity and not imbibe the callousness around us, we cannot remain unmoved in the face of widespread and far-reaching carnage. Nor can we escape blame or responsibility if we allow it to continue.

Americans -- including our black leaders -- must band together to help make our inner cities decent, humane environments for families. Community, church and civic organizations offer opportunities for Americans to transcend personal interests in order to see the shining dream of freedom and hope for all of America's people become a complete, unabridged reality.

We will not see the scourge of violent death and crime erased from our communities until those of us who have benefited so richly from our economic system are willing to contribute of ourselves on behalf of high-risk young people and the future of our nation.

Only when our concern for the well-being of our young people becomes a passion will we acquire the moral authority and the force of leadership needed to mount a holy crusade against the evils that are devouring our young people and robbing our nation of its future. The writer is secretary of health and human services.