Writing off people as hopeless is unfair, as Mfume's life shows

KWEISI MFUME arrived at the NAACP headquarters nine years ago as Benjamin Chavis made for the door, hoping nobody noticed the shadow of scandal and unpaid bills trailing him. The whole country noticed. But Chavis, the ousted president, wouldn't answer questions about the $3.2 million in debt he left behind. He and some board members had to get away, he said that final morning, and so they did -- in chauffeur-driven cars waiting outside. It was the only case in history of driving to the poorhouse in a fleet of luxury limousines.

Now Mfume takes his own leave as president of the nation's oldest civil rights group -- with a budget surplus, with $15 million in cash reserves and several million more in an endowment. What's more, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has its credibility back, and its sense of mission. These transcend money.

But as Mfume said farewell this week, there was a larger shadow remaining, which he and national Chairman Julian Bond talked about for a few moments. That shadow is the continuing trouble in portions of black America. And this, too, connects to money -- and transcends it.

Across America, the proportion of black children in poverty is about 40 percent. Millions of these kids live in families where the father is missing, one way or another. In Baltimore, 19 percent of the total population -- much of it African-American families -- lives in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Across the state, more heavily white than the city, the poverty rate is only about 8 percent.

"The poor are everywhere," Mfume said this week. "Their legions are not shrinking. They're languishing in jails, black and brown and poor white." But a disproportionate percentage are black, and the economics translates directly to desperation. There are high-level studies that back up this correlation, but so does common sense.

In one national study, black males in their 20s committed four violent crimes for every one committed by white male youths. But when the study was controlled for employment, there was no significant racial difference. In other words, people who have jobs -- whatever their skin color -- don't turn to crime to survive.

In America, Bond was saying this week, unemployment among blacks is roughly twice the white jobless figure and the government has engaged in "abandonment" of public services for the poor.

So poverty continues to express itself literally in breathtaking ways. Last year in Baltimore, for example, of 271 homicide victims, 258 were African-American. Of 221 people arrested on homicide charges last year, 215 were African-American. Of 560 nonfatal shooting victims, 530 were black. Of 253 arrested in those shootings, 249 were black. That is the arithmetic of self-destruction, much of it based on the trafficking of drugs.

Meanwhile, as of this summer, Maryland's prisons held roughly 24,000 inmates, of whom 75.9 percent were African-American.

In his youth, Kweisi Mfume was considered one of the hopeless. At his news conference this week, he talked about his impoverished childhood, of running with gangs, about getting arrested 13 times, of his mother dying in his arms, about fathering a series of children out of wedlock before he was old enough to vote.

But, at 56, he is proof of the emptiness of writing people off too soon. Now, rumors abound that Mfume, having served on the Baltimore City Council and in the U.S. Congress, might run for a U.S. Senate seat.

If Mfume's life -- once deemed irretrievably lost -- is filled with such salvation, why are so many others continuing to fall through the cracks?

In America, since the dawning of the civil rights movement half a century ago, we have seen what can happen when human beings are given a fair shot. Millions of blacks once consigned by law and by tradition to second-class existence now lead triumphant lives.

But laws of racial segregation have been replaced by walls of economic class. Today, says Harvard's Henry Louis Gates, the economic gap between the black middle and lower classes is as wide as the gap between the black and white races.

This week, Mfume and Bond congratulated each other on the NAACP's internal successes over the past decade. They're entitled. There was a time, under the departed Chavis, when the NAACP seemed to have lost its way -- economically and philosophically. For the moment, those battles have been won.

But the world outside the NAACP's doors continues to be deeply troubling. And this is the continuing struggle for the NAACP, and for its incoming leadership.