Talk to America's black leadership (formal and informal) about the staggering unemployment rates among black youth from low-income families, and they'll tell you, quite convincingly, that "the system" is at fault.

This racist "system" doesn't promote the education of black children and may even work at seeing to it that they remain uneducated. Racist employers don't provide the opportunities for entry-level work for black tenn-agers, or else lock them into dead-end jobs. Nothing will be done -- nothing can be done -- about this massive problem unless and until the system is forced to change.

But when it comes to their own children, these same leaders waste no time railing against "the system." Instead, they work at getting their children ready to take advantage of the opportunities that do exist. They tell their children to modify their language, their dress and their behavior so as to create favorable impressions in the personnel office. They tell them to show initiative and ambition, to be punctual and dependable, to make employers believe that they are worth having around.

Wouldn't it be interesting if we could learn to deal with other people's children the way we deal with our own?

If our own children were the victims of the incredibly inadequate education that sadly has become the norm in many big cities, we would spend less time fighting competency testing and more time insisting that the schools take their mission seriously -- even if it meant getting rid of some of the imcompetent teachers and administrators, black as well as white.

If our own children were graduating from high school into uselessness, we would insist that the schools combine academic instruction with preparation for real-world jobs. We would make it routine for the school administrators to take into account the requirements of local employers and then to prepare our children to meet those requirments. We might even bring our influence to bear on the employers to have their own personnel teach some of the vocational courses in the public schools.

If these things are good enough for our children, why aren't we willing to advocate them for the children who need them even more than our own?

One reason, I suspect, is that we share some of the same prejudices against these inner-city youngsters that we find so deplorable in the racist "systems." tWe don't dislike these unfortunates, but we may be uncomfortable around them. We feel sorry for them, but we don't really expect much from them. To a greater degree than any of us would admit, we have written them off.

We look at other people's children and see problems, and since we cannot bring ourselves to attribute any of the problems to the children themselves (that would be "blaming the victim"), we lay the blame at the feet of "the system," as though that relieves us of any further responsibility.

We look at our own children and see potential, and we see to it that that potential is developed -- not by railing against racism but by giving our children the resources to combat it. Of course they will be confronted with racism, we'll tell them, but that doesn't mean that they should give up, only that they must try twice as hard, be twice as good.

But while we are quite willing to say these things, privately, to our own children, we are afraid to say them, publicly, to other people's children. After all, we don't want white people to overhear us and assume that they no longer need feel guilty. Unfortunately, the things we say, in public, to keep the pressure on "the system" are also heard by other people's children, who may come to see themselves as the hopeless victims of a racist system that they are powerless to change.

It is about time we begin talking as straight to other people's children as we talk to our own -- and the hell with who else happens to be listening.

That wouldn't eliminate the woeful problem of youthful joblessness; nothing short of new jobs generated by a resurgent economy will accomplish that.

But it would help some otherwise hopeless youngsters to get started, to learn the importance of doing what they can for themselves instead of waiting for the rest of us to change "the system."

Isn't that, after all, what we try to do for our own?