WHAT'S the difference between Baltimore and Lagos?" a friend in Washington who had just returned from Nigeria, a country wallowing in crime, wracked by social decay and teetering on the brink of economic ruin, recently asked me.
"I don't know," I answered weakly, "What is the difference?"
"Lagos," he said, "doesn't have crab cakes."
An exaggerated comparison? Maybe not.
Baltimore's statistical profile reads more like that of a Third World country than most of us are willing to admit.
Consider this: Nearly 4,000 people have been murdered here since 1990. Last year, Baltimore's syphilis rate was more than 30 times the national average, and its gonorrhea rate was nine times higher than average, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One of every 10 city residents is a drug addict. City budget planners warn of a projected $153 million shortfall in revenue over the next four years.
No place for a child
Even more depressing, a recent study that considered such factors as the rates of teen pregnancy, infant mortality, school dropout and public safety ranked the city last among the nation's 25 largest metropolitan areas as a place to raise children.
Not surprisingly, 1,000 people a month are packing up and moving out, mostly to the surrounding suburbs.
It's against this backdrop that the current mayoral campaign is being waged, a contest that -- despite the drones of protest to the contrary -- has as much to do with race and racism as it does with resuscitating the hopes and dreams of a declining city.
According to the latest poll, most white voters support Democrat Martin O'Malley, the only white candidate among the mayoral front-runners, while most black voters are lining up behind the two leading black Democratic contenders, Carl Stokes and Lawrence Bell.
Plain and simple, this race is about black power and white rage.
Most of those who back Mr. Stokes and Mr. Bell do so because they want to keep the power of the mayor in black hands. And most of the whites who support Mr. O'Malley do so because they want to wrest control of the city's government from African-Americans.
Both sides in this tug of war are dragging Baltimore down.
No role models here
The front-runners in the mayor's race are men whose claims of distinction are overshadowed by their records to the contrary. Mr. Stokes lied about having a college degree and was forced to concede that he didn't pay federal income taxes for four years while serving on the City Council.
While overseeing the adoption of the city's billion dollar-plus budget, Mr. Bell had trouble keeping his own finances in order, including having his car repossessed and being sued three times for failing to pay personal debts.
Mr. O'Malley's taint is less pronounced, but just as damning. He became the "great white hope" in this campaign, about which he says race is not a factor, when it became clear that Mr. Bell and Mr. Stokes would split the black vote.
It's time for some frank talk. Baltimore's black voters won't be free from racism's grip as long as they succumb to the belief that any black candidate is better than all white contenders.
And the city's white voters will live in a prison of their own making as long as they refuse to cross the color line at the polls.
It's not the outcome of the mayoral race, but whether city residents can find a way to bridge the racial gap, that ultimately will determine if Baltimore reverses its decline.
DeWayne Wickham, a former Sun reporter, is a columnist for USA Today and the Gannett News Service.