"An erroneous public perception persists that blacks are less likely to engage in charitable activities than whites," writes Emmett D. Carson in a recent issue of the philanthrophic journal Foundation News. "However, even a cursory review of the history of American blacks speaks volumes about their determination to aid their neediest members."

My first impression upon reading this article was that Carson was talking about my perceptions, since I have pointed out on several occasions the dearth of black volunteers at some of the local soup kitchens.

I still do a double take when I see kids from St. Albans, Sidwell Friends and the Potomac School of McLean, for example, making sandwiches at Martha's Table on 14th Street NW.

Where are the black youth, I wonder.

When looking for evidence of black benevolence, says Carson, better to examine checkbooks and payroll checkoffs.

Black charity, he maintains, has come a long way since the days of the Underground Railroad and the floating collection plate in churches during the civil rights movement.

Today, near-million-dollar annual efforts such as the Combined Federal Campaign, with black postal workers from the District leading the way, highlight the kind of sophisticated changes that have occurred in charitable activities during the past few years.

Carson, an assistant program officer in the Human Rights and Governance program of the Ford Foundation, cites U.S. Census Bureau statistics showing that the majority of black men and women made some kind of charitable contribution in 1988.

Better educated and wealthier blacks gave larger contributions, and blacks who live in the South were far more likely to have made a contribution than their counterparts in the East and West.

But, as Carson himself points out, a central issue in discussions of black self-help is the degree to which blacks and whites with the same level of household income make similar contributions to charity. Among those with incomes of $25,000 to $40,000, blacks were significantly less likely to have made contributions.

"Curiously, nearly one-third more blacks (61 percent) than whites (42 percent) said that they did not make a charitable contribution to a health organization," Carson wrote. "Roughly the same comparison held for giving to youth and community groups -- ironic in light of blacks' enormous health problems and growing need for more effective organizations to address such issues as teenage pregnancy and drug abuse."

This is even more significant because black nonprofit organizations depend primarily on contributions from blacks for survival. Only 5 percent of white contributions are allocated to black charitable organizations.

Who, then, is keeping organizations such as the United Black Fund and the Associated Black Charities afloat?

Carson says that 12 percent of blacks with annual incomes of less than $12,000 reported giving more than $500 to charity in 1988. For blacks earning more than $40,000 a year, 47 percent gave more than $500.

Thus, it appears that the richest and, when judging based on sacrifice, the poorest among us are indeed the most sensitive to concerns of the needy.

"As a greater number of blacks join the ranks of America's affluent," Carson asserts, "there will be increasing opportunities for the black community to utilize more sophisticated methods to channel its philanthropic resources to benefit the black community."

Carson cites the $20 million gift by entertainer Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille, to Atlanta's Spelman College as "an extraordinary example of the kind of gifts that a growing number of blacks may be capable of making in future years."

Let's hope so. But in the meantime, smaller amounts will be accepted -- along with some volunteers. I'd still like to see more black youths making sandwiches at Martha's Table.