ON THE the first day of my first real job, I walked the block from one end of DeFreeze Street to the other. Dispatched by the D.C. Department of Recreation, I was charged with organizing and directing a summer street camp for the children and teenagers who lived there. On the walk, I saw one set of vacant eyes after another. The sexes and states of disrepair varied, but there was no respite from the common chant of those eyes: We are nothing to nobody.

I was 19 years old. It was 1966.

Two decades later, every symptom of pathology that existed on DeFreeze Street has increased exponentially. And the number of DeFreeze Streets in Washington has increased by the hundreds. Where there were drugs, there are now more powerful ones; where there was a homeless man, there are now homeless men and women and children.

I have become convinced in the intervening years that the problem of DeFreeze Street is a cultural problem. More precisely, it is the story of people who feel, in the words of those children, that "we are nothing to nobody." Their culture has been taken from them -- unrecognized and undervalued by the larger world. This is why their minds, fertile at birth, are turned inward and have little upon which to feed.

Culture matters to everyone, but it matters to black Americans for special and obvious reasons:

When Africans were herded to America's shores to provide the raw material for slavery, whites set about to eviscerate every trace of African culture in order to quicken the transformation of human being to chattel.

Communication, the index of most cultures, was denied to slaves. They were not allowed to learn to read or write English, or to read or write or speak in their native languages. For a slave to practice his culture could be a life-threatening enterprise. And even when slavery ended and black schools came into being, many were governed by well-meaning missionaries who were bent on "civilizing" the black. Prevailing wisdom, then and now, was that European culture held the key to civilization.

Whites sometimes ask why we continue to find it necessary to invoke the past. They do not want to be blamed for the sins of their fathers, and they exhort us to move on. But this is a story that has not ended. Cultural exclusion continues today -- and in some ways it is getting worse. Our entire society is paying a growing price for this cultural blindness. Next week, I'll be participating in the midwinter meeting of the Association of Art Museum Directors. Among topics to be considered is the issue of cultural equity, and Washington provides me with a perfect starting point.

To address the issue, one need go no further than such major institutions as the Smithsonian, the National Gallery and other arts centers. In too many cases, one looks in vain for signs of a non-white presence. Consider: The National Gallery of Art does not have a single black on its curatorial staff. It has never had an exhibit by an African American artist (though it has had shows of ancient Asian and African cultures, which have primarily shown artifacts). How can a gallery proclaim itself as national in scope (while receiving considerable public funding) and ignore the cultures of Asian, African, Indian and Latino-Americans? Africian, Indian, Latino- and Asian Americans pay taxes too.

The National Gallery has, to be sure, become more sensitive to the problem: Roger Mandle, the gallery's relatively new deputy director, is familiar with the work of non-white artists, and this year the gallery initiated an intensive intern program funded primarily by Southwestern Bell with help from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. According to Mandle's office, the gallery currently owns a half-dozen works by African Americans -- two of them acquired in the last two years -- out of 200 to 300 American painters. (One of these was a work by the acclaimed sculptor Martin Puryear, which was added to the 20th-century installation.)

"We are anxious to hire an African American curator, but we do not have sufficient funding," Mandle said last week.

National Gallery Director J. Carter Brown, asked to comment, said this: "The National Gallery is continually seeking appropriate ways to celebrate the cultures of the world, through exhibitions, publications and educational programs. We are at the same time placing greater emphasis on aspects of cultural equity in our personnel policies and audience development." The Smithsonian, the largest and perhaps the most powerful cultural institution in the world, has never had a non-white "bureau" (museum) director, aside from the Anacostia Museum and the Museum of African Art. Smithsonian magazine and the "Smithsonian World" television series, which present the public face of the institution, are more egregious in their exclusion of non-white Americans than the bureaus.

Still, Roger Kennedy, director of the Museum of American History, has made more progress than his bureau colleagues in addressing the problem of cultural representation on his curatorial staff. And, paradoxically, Smithsonian Secretary Robert McC. Adams is far ahead of the bureaus who report to him. This summer, in a bold move, Adams named former Metro chief Carmen Turner as undersecretary, the second-highest position at the Smithsonian.

The Hirshhorn is not atypical in the Smithsonian's constellation. In 1992, the Hirshhorn will mount the first full solo exhibit by an African American in its 17-year history: Martin Puryear. The Hirshhorn does have a few people of color represented in its collection, but only rarely are these artists put on public view. A docent coordinator is currently organizing a symposium on the African American aesthetic in postmodernism, but the sad fact is that the Hirshhorn has no curators who are firmly grounded in the art of any American racial minority. And this is the most "modern" of the Smithsonian's bureaus!

The Smithsonian's Museum of American Art has scheduled a William H. Johnson exhibition for this fall. A Romare Bearden and a Chicano exhibition are scheduled for 1992, but the museum has no people of color in its senior curatorial staff. The Corcoran -- which has never had a non-white on the permanentcuratorial staff -- could do more to put on exhibitions that present non-white artists. By all accounts the new director, David C. Levy, plans to address such questions aggressively. Ironically, the Corcoran last year mounted a show, curated by a black art historian, that showed the negative depiction of blacks at the hands of some of America's most revered artists. For those who wonder about the continued exclusion of blacks by major museums and their most august patrons, this exhibit provided considerable historical material. At Arena Stage, outgoing producing director Zelda Fichandler is to be credited for making gains toward having blacks and Latinos represented. She has hired a black artistic associate, and recent seasons have seen the staging of the gospel musical "Abyssinia," "Playboy of the West Indies," "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," "The Glass Menagerie" with an all-black cast, "Stand Up Tragedy" and "Fences." This season, nontraditional casting has taken firm hold at Arena. The Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger casts all of its productions nontraditionally and has hired blacks in all aspects of its operation. Michael Kahn is the only major art czar who did this without external goading; it is impossible to squeeze into his sold-out, albeit tiny, houses. And the Washington Project for the Arts has gone from an all-white staff to a staff having blacks in major positions with exciting, culturally diverse programs.

There are also glaring failures. No progress has been made, nor sustained interest exhibited, by the Phillips Gallery, the Washington Opera or the Washington Ballet. To my recollection, the National Symphony has never played a regular-season program of black composers, though it is about to perform the works of Scott Joplin, Ulysses Kay and William Grant Still in a youth series concert.

James Wolfensohn, appointed last spring as the new chairman of the Kennedy Center, says, "The future of the Kennedy Center depends on its ability to serve the community at large, to provide programming that is relevant and access that is easy. We are launched on a continuing program to fulfill our aspirations of cultural diversity." The Kennedy Center Board has one newly appointed black member, Lionel Hampton.

Additionally, black critical voices are in shocking short supply in America's major media -- newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations. Thus, the reviews, analyses and interpretations that all of us read are transmitted through white eyes, from a white perspective. There is no change in sight.

Although it is quite exhausting to contemplate, this is not an exhaustive list. I focus on blacks because Washington is a city that is at least 70 percent black -- a city with a strikingly large proportion of highly educated black citizens. Such statistics make the cultural non-representation of African Americans here completely incomprehensible. (The black population of the United States is growing at a rate twice that of the white population. The Asian and Latino populations are growing at a rate four times that of black growth. It is projected, that by the year 2020, minorities will become the majority in several major urban centers.)

You might ask why the black community does not just establish its own institutions, and there is indeed a myth that African Americans do not contribute to their own communities. Statistics suggest the opposite. But the black community simply does not have capital in large enough sums to subsidize such ventures. There are no black families on Regardie's list of Washington's richest families; no black-owned firm appears on The Washington Post's list of the area's 100 largest publicly owned companies.

As 1991 begins, there is not one viable black theater company or dance company in Washington. (By viable, I mean companies that have a regular season and a facility in which to perform.) There are perhaps two or three black-owned art galleries that can even claim regular hours and a regular installation of exhibits. The most difficult problem appears to be that of establishing and sustaining black cultural institutions in Washington.

If the problem is cultural exclusion, as I have suggested, then the answer should be obvious: cultural equity -- the simple tenet that no culture should be treated as more valid than the other. I am not speaking of quotas here but rather of representation. Each of the many diverse cultures that make up America should be prized for itself, and for the contribution it makes to the whole. And though it may sound odd, I think I had more of that sense of cultural equity growing up in segregated Mobile, Ala., than do youngsters in today's Washington, D.C.

In Mobile, we had a clear and direct message from white America. It was a message of total exclusion: You are nothing to nobody. You are not accepted, nor welcome. While that message wrought certain damage on the black psyche, its clarity sent us clinging to one another, and from that embrace we were able to eke out some sense of cultural well-being. Our heroes were people like Osceola, the great Seminole Indian chief of an earlier century, who harbored slaves -- even married one -- and stood to the last against the U.S. Army. And there was Martin Luther King Jr., whom everybody went to hear when he came from Montgomery to speak at the International Longshoreman's Association Hall.

The enemy was no mystery in those days. Parents who had been brought up by those who remembered slavery knew their job was to preserve our history and culture. White society had its museums and institutions. Our parents knew they had a job to do, so they took what in white society was generally an institutional task and educated us in our history and culture as best they could. By recounting the achievements of black people of greatness, they were able to lay to rest the great white myth of black inferiority.

The de facto segregation of this city's cultural institutions perpetuates that myth in dangerous and subtle ways -- all the way to our DeFreeze Streets. As long as a city's children feel "we are nothing to nobody" and more often find their faces mirrored in the bottom of crack vials than on the walls of our museums, it is time to accelerate change. Otherwise, all of us, black and white, will continue to suffer the consequences.

Peggy Cooper Cafritz is co-founder of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, chairman emeritus of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and chairman of the Cultural Education Committee of the Smithsonian.