One way to understand what Jeff Howard and Ray Hammond are talking about is to think of Chinese Americans and point guards.

Howard and Hammond don't mention Oriental basketball players anywhere in their veil-lifting discussion of the academic underachievement of black students in "Rumors of Inferiority," in the Sept. 9 issue of The New Republic.

Their interest is not athletics but the black performance gap on measures ranging from the Scholastic Aptitute Test (the black median score is some 200 points below the white median on a test where the maximum score is 1,600) to the Florida test for teachers (passed by 80 percent of whites who take it; the black pass rate is 35 to 40 percent) to the New York City sergeant's exam (10.6 percent of the white applicants pass it; 4.4 percent of Hispanics, 1.6 percent of blacks).

What accounts for the gap?

Howard, a social psychologist, and Hammond, a physician, think the answer has very little to do with ability and a lot to do with self-doubt, ill- founded presumptions and powerful, internalized stereotypes.

"The performance gap is largely a behavioral problem," the authors contend. "It is the result of a remediable tendency (of blacks) to avoid intellectual engagement and competition. Avoidance is rooted in the fears and self-doubt engendered by a major legacy of American racism: the strong negative stereotypes about black intellectual capabilities."

Teachers, influenced by test data and other pervasive rumors of black inferiority, tend to expect less of black students; black students tend to accept the judgment of their intellectual inferiority and their resulting poor effort and performance fulfills everybody's expectation.

As with Chinese basketball players. Genetics and innate ability alone cannot explain the almost total absence of Chinese players from post-high school basketball. Physical size might account for the absence of centers and forwards. But surely the same physical and mental agility, the same hand-eye coordination, the same quickness and body control that produce so many outstanding gymnasts and table-tennis players would produce at least one NCAA point guard.

Might it be that Chinese youngsters, seeing no one who looks like themselves doing particularly well on the courts, saddled with constantly reinforced assumptions that their talents lie in other directions, and embarrassed by their awkwardness the first time they try basketball, simply choose not to compete?

A black youngster will rarely allow his initial awkwardness on the court to convince him that basketball is not his game. His expectation is that he will learn to play the game well. And because he fully expects to succeed, he can be persuaded to undergo endless hours of instruction, practice and drill.

Is it possible to create a similar expectancy for intellectual success? The authors believe it is. They call for a national program, black led, to change the "psychology of performance" among black children. The program they describe would have three key elements:

A deliberate attempt to control "expectancy communications," including the way we talk with one another, including (presumably) the tendency to think of intellectual engagement and competition as somehow "white."

Inculcation of an "intellectual work ethic." "We must teach our people, young and mature, the efficacy of intense, committed effort in the arena of intellectual activity and the techniques to develop discipline in study and work habits."

An effort to change the way young people think about their intellectual development, encouraging them to attribute their intellectual sucesses to ability and their intellectual failures to a lack of effort. Failure, rather than being allowed to destroy the children's self-confidence, "should be seen instead as feedback indicating the need for more intense effort or for a different approach to the task."

That, of course, is what every good teacher tries to accomplish, and it's reasonable to wonder how successful the Howard/Hammond prescription will be. But there's not much doubt in my mind that their diagnosis could be the foundation of a major new attack on an old, deeply disturbing problem.