A wall of abstractions keeps us from facing the crises of poverty and crime in black urban America. Old-school civil rights leaders demand more social spending by the government. Conservatives declare that only the black community can cure itself. And from the fringes come cries of "genocide," as if drug violence and the high-school dropout rate were evidence in themselves of a plot to exterminate African Americans.

Meanwhile, those of us who don't live under the threatening clouds, who don't deal every day with the pain and frustration of lower-class life, tend to find ourselves divorced from the feelings of those who must.

"Black Men: Uncertain Futures," airing tonight at 10 on Channel 26, is a well-intentioned documentary on an urgent subject. But it doesn't batter through the wall of abstractions. In fact, many of the talking heads that occupy the program belong to professional abstractionists -- think-tank types, academicians, congressmen. ("Black Men," produced by Maryland Public Television, also airs tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 32.)

Host Noah Nelson, an NBC News correspondent, piles on the statistics: Almost 25 percent of black men in their twenties are enmeshed in the criminal justice system; 35 percent of black teenagers willing to work are unemployed. So many figures and ratios that they clutter the mind. This is not a tragedy of numbers, after all, but of human beings. And we need, more than ever, to hear their voices.

Ironically, one of the first issues addressed in "Black Men" is the warping power of picture after picture of young black men in handcuffs on the nightly news. CNN anchor Bernard Shaw calls it a "drumbeat" of negative images. One media observer calls it racist "exploitation." Yet the makers of "Black Men" themselves haven't done enough to humanize the very people about whom they're so concerned.

The program's most compelling moments come when young black men speak for themselves. In the Watts section of Los Angeles, some unemployed guys hanging out on the street bitterly blame Asian shopkeepers and Mexican immigrants for their troubles. A Kentucky Fried Chicken manager speaks proudly of working his way up from washing the floors. James Perry of the District, a former drug dealer, recalls the blasts of gunfire that left him paralyzed.

Too few are these glimpses.

In its last quarter, "Black Men: Uncertain Futures" finds a focus it should have had all along. Instead of intellectuals pontificating on sociological factors -- the "undermining" of values by the welfare system, the post-integrationist fragmentation of black America -- we meet men who are taking the future into their own hands, strong and successful African Americans who have decided to serve as mentors for boys and teenagers.

"We ask people, 'Take one boy. Take one, and try to help this boy get to be a man. That's all. Just try to help this one,' " says Gary Mendez of the National Endowment for the Development of African American Men.

"As old as I am, I still need a father. I still need somebody to talk to," says a 20-year-old man whose mentor is the president of the Memphis chapter of 100 Black Men, a volunteer group. "I call {him} at home. I can wake him up at 3 o'clock in the morning. And I talk to him about stuff I don't even talk to my mother about."

The new mentor movement seems so exciting and potentially empowering that when Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a veteran civil rights activist, calls for "massive intervention" by the federal government to solve black America's problems, he seems woefully out of date.