IT CAN BE argued that the conventional and traditional institutions (family, schools, churches, business, government) are out of step with the needs of children and youth - specifically black children and youth.

Many of the black youngsters whom I've worked with in Philadelphia over the last 15 years are nothing more than canaries in the coal mine who reflect the conditions in their environment, the physical and social toxins.

The cumulative effect of the negatives and hassles in the world these young people live in has traumatized and stifled any resiliency that might help them overcome the odds. They're overwhelmed by the urban environment we've seen on full display in "The Wire."

But not only is this an urban problem affecting black males, it's an American problem facing African-Americans, whoever we are and wherever we live. The common denominator is race - race being the elephant in the room that affects black males in particular, the historical "self-fulfilling prophecy" that W.E.B. DuBois refers to when he asks the question, "How does it feel to be a problem?"

This question speaks volumes to the internalized oppression of black people, past and present. Being a problem in America has always been based on race and class, and race has always trumped class. Be it in urban, suburban or rural America, it makes no difference. DuBois was also on point when he predicted the problem of the 20th century as being the color line, which continues into the 21st century.

Race is a problem that's been institutionalized in America and internalized by Americans. Racism is inescapable and affects all Americans in various ways and degrees. How do we prevent African-American youth throughout Philadelphia from having allergic reactions to being perceived as a problem, because of their race and class? What are the cultural and social antihistamines that can prevent these reactions? And how can they be made available to large numbers of young black people in a city that's anything but brotherly and sisterly at the moment?

One such cultural antihistamine that my organization has used in Philadelphia and nationally, and think is extremely useful to all those serious about working with black youth and presenting themselves as more then just poverty pimps, are rites of passage.

These rites provide the skin and armor to reduce exposure and prevent allergic reactions to the toxicity in the environment. Rites of passage is a process for regenerating community. It focuses on cultural identity, purpose and direction. Who am I? What do I want? How do I get there?

Simple questions that are very difficult to ask and answer without the proper values and support from family and community.

Rites of passage is a value-driven process of human development that involves separation, transition, reintegration, regeneration, restoration and edification. It must take place in a safe and caring environment with adults and elders.

What happens when you do not have these rites of passage? What you have is front-page headlines in the Daily News, Inquirer and metro sections of our newspapers. Disruptive individual and group behavior, crime against persons and property.

When there is not a rites-of-passage process that is family- and community-sanctioned and adult-directed, young people will create their own rites in the form of gangs - gangs which have their own initiations, rituals and ceremony.

Youth will fill the void and create their own identity, purpose and direction, which are popular culture and electronic media driven - such a culture values "me" as opposed to "we," things as opposed to people, immediate gratification as opposed to deferred gratification. These values reflect excessive individualism, materialism and hedonism.

The results are a systemic genocide of black youth.

Along with rites of passage we also need educational and human-services institutions that transcend social pacification. These institutions need to be more than poverty pimps who make money and reputations off the backs of our youth, specifically black youth.

Education and human-services institutions must shift to social transformation and practice "do no harm." Mark Twain reminds us that "if your only tool is a hammer, all problems look like nails."

While the human-service tool has its value in some situations, like the hammer it can also do great harm when used inappropriately. All the problems of the vulnerable, exploited, marginalized and excluded are not nails.

They don't always "need" human services. More often, they may need higher expectations on the part of teachers or human service workers - and justice, equity, income, community and strong families. *

Chad Dion Lassiter is president of Black Men at Penn School of Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania.