Dismissal of Kweisi Mfume as `race hustler' is off base

January 27, 2002|By Gregory Kane

KWEISI Mfume, race hustler?

According to some e-mailers, he is. Mfume, they say, is right up there with the Revvums Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan as America's leading race hustlers.

Maybe attacking "race hustlers" sounds better if they're attacked four at a time, as opposed to three at a time. Jackson, Sharpton and Farrakhan seem to be the top three who arouse the dudgeon of some white Americans. The trio, whatever their faults, fill a need some white Americans have to hate somebody black. Hating Jackson, Sharpton or Farrakhan as individuals relieves them of the burden of hating an entire race.

On the flip side, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas fulfills the need some black Americans have to hate somebody black.

But how does Mfume - who made friends and allies both black and white, Democrat and Republican, conservative and liberal, when he was a member of Congress, and who has steered a moderate, steady course since he took the helm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - get added to the "race hustler" list?

Mfume sat in a conference room at the NAACP's national headquarters recently to ponder that and other questions concerning the cancellation of The Bottom Line - a WBAL public affairs television show for which he served as host for about nine years - diversity in network television and the official, not the imagined, NAACP reaction to the events of Sept. 11.

On the cancellation of The Bottom Line: "From what I understand, [WBAL] has suffered some revenue loss as a result of what happened on Sept. 11. As a result, the networks [had a] huge pre-emption of local programming for three or four weeks and intermittently after that point. A lot of broadcast facilities lost money, and they don't have the wherewithal" to put on local programs.

"I enjoyed doing the show. For me, it was a labor of love. I certainly don't get rich from doing the show. But I had an opportunity to be able to have the community come in and to, in a real way, interact with issues that they normally would have to sit at their televisions and watch newsmakers interact with. People were, in fact, the opinion makers."

On his appearance on Showtime's Soul Food: "Everybody's seen that but me. Everybody has reacted to it. People thought it was strong, dynamic programming [that] cut through a lot of what we traditionally get and went to the heart of an issue, and they were moved by it." (The episode featured prominent blacks and whites - among them Mfume, black conservative Larry Elder and Aaron McGruder, creator of the cartoon The Boondocks - reacting to a fictional riot.)

On network diversity: "Cable has always gotten the picture, because that was paid programming. They had to tailor programs to an audience that would pay for it, and diversity sells. It's a lesson the broadcast side of television is learning, but it's taking them longer to learn."

On ABC, NBC, CBS diversity efforts: "ABC has finally gotten the picture under the leadership of their current president. NBC we were a little disturbed with, but they have made some changes. CBS and Fox have always been ahead of everybody else in that regard. UPN and WB have, to some extent, a ghetto-ization of diversity. They have the black hour from seven or so on."

His reaction to the "race hustler" charge: "When you are race hustling, you are hustling for some money or something. The NAACP is not for sale. The only thing we want is change - positive change. All the things we've done recently - the Confederate flag fight, the Adams Mark boycott - were to change what previously existed. You don't see remuneration coming back here to the NAACP or myself. I think there's a big difference from somebody who's an ambulance chaser and someone who sounds the alarm when the building is on fire. What we try to do is sound the alarm."

On Sept. 11: "The president wrote and asked If I would join him at the National Cathedral for the national prayer service. That was gracious on his part. I went over and joined the service. I made it a point to be at his [subsequent address to Congress] because I thought it was important for a show of solidarity that we not run and hide on this issue but that we stand together. I was there with many others applauding the president ... because I believe that his position was the correct position.

"Since that time, I've tried in my own way to make sure that our units don't deviate from [the NAACP's stand] to make a mockery of it. We had one incident in Durham, N.C. I had to bring back in line a branch president whose statements essentially were `we shouldn't concern ourselves with this' [and] `this is what the U.S. deserved' and `tomorrow we'll be the first ones to die and then they'll go back to discriminating against us.' It was that kind of language that I clearly thought was inappropriate and was a clear deviation from our position on this issue."

If this guy's a race hustler, we need more like him.

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