The Howard University professor was on the phone because he "just had to talk to somebody." He is dismayed and frightened, he said, over the plight of the black underclass and frustrated that middle-class black professionals don't seem interested in doing anything about it.

"It's increasingly obvious that the federal government isn't going to do anything about the problem -- I'm not sure how much it could do if it wanted to -- and that it's up to the black middle class to do something about it. But when you talk to your friends about it, you get statements like: 'The best thing I can do for the underclass is to be the best doctor I can be, to set an example of success.' That's a cop-out. The problem is getting worse all the time, and something has to be done."

The engineer friend who called me at home a few hours later apologized for bending my ear, but he "just had to talk" about the problem. He had lunched at a small soul-food restaurant near his place of business and was shocked at the language -- loud, unrestrained and obscene -- of three black adolescents who had come into the place. "I'm no prude; my friends and I used some of the same language when I was growing up. The difference is, we would never have said such things in the presence of adults.

"You'd like to think of trying to help some of these kids find a job, or possibly hiring some of them. But the truth is, I'm afraid of them. These kids are going to be lost unless we figure out some way of rescuing them. But what?"

Which, of course, is the problem. Those of us who were the beneficiaries of the earlier civil-rights movement -- whose middle-class attitudes of academic preparation and hard work enabled us to take advantage of the opportunities that movement made available -- have not been able to devise a comparable breakthrough for the growing underclass.

The youngsters most in need of help seem least ready for it. They lack the basic skills and, more dismayingly, the basic attitudes that would make them attractive even as entry-level employees. They don't know how to seek the help they need, and worse, they positively frighten those who feel the urge to offer help.

We are helpless, idea-less witnesses to a near-total social breakdown. The concerned professionals who could command the resources don't know what to do. Members of the youngsters' own families, who at an earlier time might have helped them learn the attitudes that would help them secure the special help they need, often don't have the appropriate attitudes themselves, having spent most of their lives outside the formal job structure. In a growing number of instances, their households hardly qualify as families at all.

Can anything be done? I suspect that there may be a fair number of middle-class blacks who, like the Howard University professor and the engineer, would be ready to help if there was some mechanism for doing so. One such mechanism might be a formal organization, locally based, for pairing these disaster-bound youngsters with middle-class adults who could help them develop the academic and attitudinal basis for escaping the underclass: a sort of Big Brothers approach designed to inculcate middle- class values.

But Big Brothers itself has a huge backlog of unmatched youngsters, due to the desperate shortage of volunteering black men. Still, I believe a properly established organization, with a well-run publicity and recruitment campaign, could produce worthwhile results.

There would still be a shortage of role models, the demographics being what they are, but it should be possible to start a "skimming" process in which at least those youngsters (and their parents) who are most interested might get the help they need in breaking out of the desperate pathology of the ghetto.

The alternative is too horrible to contemplate.