"Made your contribution to the fund yet?" the cabbie asked.
I suspected I was being set up, but I decided to take a chance. Just which fund did he have in mind? I asked.
"Why, the NAAPC, of course," he said.
I explained that I had made my annual contribution to the NAACP back in January, simultaneously establishing my civil-rights bona fides and correcting his acronym.
"I'm not as dumb as you think," the cabbie said. "I know how to spell NAACP. I asked you about the NAAPC -- the fund for Negroes Accused of Awful Pecuniary Chicanery."
He handed me a newspaper report of a panel discussion during the Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Weekend on harassment of black officials. He had underlined the part where one panelist called for the establishment of a defense fund for black officeholders.
"You're always defending these people," he said, "so I'm sure you'll be sending in your contribution."
I told him his sarcasm was inappropriate for what is a truly serious issue. Any number of black officials are under investigation, facing indictment or actually serving time on one charge or another. Indeed, so many of them are in trouble that it is not stretching the point to say that our leadership is under assault, I said, ticking off a list that included mayors, state legislators, members of Congress and various local officials, elected and otherwise.
"Are they all innocent?" he asked. "Even the ones who pleaded guilty?"
"I didn't say they're all innocent," I told him. "That's for the prosecutors to prove. But they are all black. Doesn't that tell you something about what racist prosecutors, not to mention the racist press, are doing to our leadership?"
"It seems to me that I've been reading a lot of newspaper stories about white politicians being charged with one thing and another," he said. "And a few of them have gone to jail." He named several, including Watergate and Abscam figures, convicted local officials and at least two presidential contenders who have been forced to quit their campaigns.
"Looks to me like people get in trouble because of what they do, not because of their color," he said.
I explained to him that black officials are, on the evidence, far more likely than their white counterparts to be the subject of investigations and sensational press reports. Just check your newspaper, I told him.
"And black folks are also more likely to go to jail for robbery and drugs and strong-arm robbery," he said. "Just check Lorton. But if anybody asked me to donate to a fund for the brother who robbed me with a gun last week, I'd put him out of my cab. So why should I contribute to a defense fund for brothers who rob me with phony vouchers and sweetheart contracts and kickbacks?"
I told him I wasn't defending black people who actually abuse their public trusts. All I was saying was that those who are accused and are innocent deserve our support.
"But until they are indicted and actually go to trial, how do I know which ones are innocent?" he asked. "It seems to me that the people who are talking about setting up defense funds or who are always asking us to come to some fund-raiser or something don't know whether these people are innocent any more than I do. Is there some kind of committee that's going to tell me, 'Give to Congressman So-and-So because we believe he's innocent, but don't give a dime to State Sen. Thus-and-Such because we think that sucker's guilty as sin'?"
I explained that to make such distinctions would be tantamount to convicting accused officials without a trial.
"So we're supposed to contribute to the innocent ones because they're innocent. . . ."
"Well, of course," I told him.
"And we're supposed to contribute to the guilty ones because it's unfair to make distinctions. Looks like I'm damned if he did and damned if he didn't."
I determined to cinch the argument. I handed him a report by Mary R. Sawyer, a professor at Iowa State University, who says her research reveals that black politicians are subjected to more harassment, more unfavorable publicity and more selective prosecution than their white counterparts. "And she's white," I told him.
Instead of answering, he handed me a clip that quoted Virginia's Lt. Gov. Douglas Wilder as saying: "Those of us who remain in public office can expect closer scrutiny. A public sensitive to corruption will begin to ask questions. Officials will have to clean up their act or they will slip up and be tossed out of the job."
"And he's black," the cabbie said.
"Look, man," I shouted. "If you're content to see a whole generation of black leadership wiped out because you're too cheap to get off a couple of dollars, that's your problem."
"Tell you what," the cabbie said. "Let's let these officials go to trial like everybody else. Then if the court finds them innocent, I'll make a contribution. Otherwise, I'll keep my money in my pocket."
"And you call yourself a black man," I said.