Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Marion Barry keeps digging a deeper hole with racially insensitive remarks
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Marion Barry keeps digging a deeper hole with racially insensitive remarks

DC's "Mayor-for-Life" Marion Barry

Marion Barry is the elected councilman for Washington DC’s 8th Ward, but he’s more commonly referred to in the District as “Mayor for Life.” That’s because the man seemingly has nine lives, politically speaking.

He’s now embroiled in a controversy over anti-Asian remarks he made a couple of months ago, but an attempt to mend fences with a community meeting today added some more fuel to the fire when he called Polish people “Polacks” — which is tantamount to calling Asians the “C-word” and African Americans, uh, you know, the “N-word.”

Barry’s no stranger to controversy as a politician.

But he began his career in a spectacularly positive way: He was the first president of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, which played a major role in the nascent civil rights movement of the early and mid-1960s before taking on a more radical cast later in the decade. Barry went on to become the first veteran of the civil right era to be elected mayor of a major city — and he served as mayor of the District of Columbia twice, from 1979-1991 and again from 1995-1999. Before he was elected mayor, Barry was an at-large councilman for Washington DC from 1975-’79, and then Ward 8 councilman from ’92-’95 and was re-elected in 2004.

Marion_Barry_smoking_crackIn between his stints in office, Barry was arrested, convicted and spent time in federal prison for possession and use of crack cocaine. A widely televised DEA undercover video showed the Mayor smoking crack (photo, left). But amazingly, that didn’t dent his popularity. He ran for the Ward 8 council seat and won that after his release form prison, and then ran for and won the mayor’s office for a second time.

In the decade since, he’s been dogged by other legal problems: charges that he failed to pay his taxes, various traffic violations and charges from a girlfriend that he was stalking her, and a special counsel’s investigation that found he had benefited from a contract he awarded the girlfriend.

In early April, Barry ignited the current controversy over Asian Americans by speaking at a victory party for his primary win for re-election to his council seat, about Korean grocers who operate small business in his ward. “We’ve got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops,” he said. “They ought to go, I’ll just say that right now, you know. But we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.”

He offered an apology of sorts over Twitter about his “bad choice of words” but stood by his point, that Asian store owners ran dirty operations and took jobs away from African Americans.

A couple of weeks later, Barry added fuel to the fire he’d started, by singling out Filipino service workers, specifically nurses: “In fact, it’s so bad, that if you go to the hospital now, you find a number of immigrants who are nurses, particularly from the Philippines,” he said. “And no offense, but let’s grow our own teachers, let’s grow our own nurses — and so that we don’t have to be scrounging around in our community clinics and other kinds of places — having to hire people from somewhere else.”

The comment elicited a strongly worded response from the Philippines’ Ambassador, which included this passage:

Councilmember Barry’s penchant for blaming Asians, who only want to work for their American dream, fuels racism, discrimination, and violence. Such rhetoric does nothing but harm relations among community members, when the times call for developing relationships and finding solutions to common challenges. He owes Filipino nurses an apology for his recent tirade.

That apology came this week, but not because Barry suddenly had a change of heart. It’s because he suffered a blood clot and was hospitalized — and tended to by Filipina nurses. He tweeted:

“Got a blood clot while waiting on plane in Memphis” … “Taking blood thiner. I thank God it was caught. #thankGodALLthetime” … “I also thank outstanding medical staff, incl. kind professional Filipino staff. I stand corrected; I truly didn’t mean 2 hurt or offend.”

So today, Marion Barry took the next step in his march to contrition, hosting a community forum in his ward with representatives of Korean, Chinese and Filipino communities so he could publicly and officially apologize.

Unfortunately, there were people in the audience who publicly echoed Barry’s original sentiments, and then Barry himself veered into new territory by asserting that this dialogue, albeit prickly, is a step forward, and that the US has been built on a long history of racial tension. Here’s the Washington Post on Barry’s latest verbal misstep:

“The Irish caught hell, the Jews caught hell, the Polacks caught hell,” Barry said, invoking a word that Polish people have viewed as disparaging. “We want Ward 8 to be the model of diversity.”

Phew. It’s hard to believe that Marion Barry is a political leader in a high position, with his penchant for speaking before thinking. And, it’s disappointing — and disturbing — that he’s so popular.

The anti-Asian theme is a long-running undercurrent in American race relations, that in some ways can be traced back to the 1960s when the term “Model Minority” was coined. It was created as a label for Japanese Americans at the time, who were held up as a population that had excelled and succeeded despite having been imprisoned in American concentration camps during World War II. (And, because Japanese Americans went to those camps willingly and largely without protest as a way to show their patriotism for the US.)

In a 1966 New York Times magazine essay, a sociologist used the term to describe Japanese Americans and the inference was that African Americans were a “bad” minority because of their demands and social unrest they caused. The same year, a US News & World Report article commended the Chinese American community for being hard-working contributors to the American dream.

By the 1980s and ’90s and into the 2000s, as economic forces led to Asians running businesses in mostly African American neighborhoods, those racial tensions broke out into the open.

There was a widely publicized protest by African Americans against Korean grocers in New York; black youth attacking elderly Asians in San Francisco, and of course, the most explicit, although it started as a protest against an unjust verdict: The LA riots that followed the acquittal of the cops who brutally beat Rodney King. The 20th anniversary of the LA riots were marked just a month ago, ironically amidst Marion Barry’s outrageous statements.

And you know what?

The words that come to my mind are from the vivid plea of Rodney King himself, during the third day of rioting: “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?”

I wish we could all remember those words. Marion Barry’s carelessness and callousness shows he certainly doesn’t remember them. That’s unfortunate, because he’s in a position to influence his supporters and serve as a bridge between communities to make things right. But Barry seems to have forgotten Rodney King’s words.

They’re good words to at least try to live by.

UPDATE:

Here’s the text of a press release sent late this afternoon by the OCA, one of the Asian American organizations who organized the event today with Councilman Barry:

WASHINGTON, D.C. – OCA, a national organization dedicated to advancing the political, social, and economic well-being of Asian Pacific Americans (APAs), applauds Washington, D.C. Councilmember Marion Barry Jr. for publicly acknowledging and apologizing for his problematic statements previously made regarding the APA community.

In today’s joint press conference with the APA community, Mr. Barry publicly acknowledged his unfortunate statements with sincerity and directly apologized to the community. Taking an active role in advocating for APAs, Executive Director Tom Hayashi also participated in the press conference, touching on the importance of continuing the discourse that is crucial to moving forward. OCA is pleased that a community dialogue has been established in an effort to address Mr. Barry’s concerns while we work in solidarity to improve economic and educational conditions of all citizens within his constituency. It is high time for APAs to stop being polite or deferential; having said that, this does not mean being disrespectful, rude, or inappropriate. The outcome of this event reflects the collective resolve of our community to stand up against insensitive, xenophobic, and unfounded claims.

While the dialogue between Mr. Barry and the APA community is symbolically important, this event must not be an end all or be all for race relations. This marks the beginning of an effort, and more importantly a commitment, to understand the deeper issues that plague our communities. Holding this press conference and the opportunity to express our hurt and concerns directly with the Councilman and members of the community is the easy part of our journey. As we had agreed to today, so much must and should be done in the months and years ahead to address how we can come together to move forward without the pitting and the blaming.

As we struggle as a nation with an economy in recession, issues of educational and economic opportunity continue to stress race relations. Our resolve locally in Washington, D.C., as well as on a national scale, is strong because leadership and relationship building between communities of color are pursued with integrity and solidarity. We must come to a fundamental understanding that we are all Americans; that APAs contribute to their community as much as everyone else. Moving forward is not about pointing to who is more oppressed or privileged. It is about addressing racism squarely for what it is and to overcome it.

Our next step, as an APA community, is to get beyond the personalities and to engage in crucial discussions on how we can address specific issues around economic development and educational opportunities through regularly scheduled meetings sponsored by the D.C. Commission for APIAs. As a national membership driven civil rights organization, OCA will continue to fight injustices and seek to build stronger relationships across communities locally and nationally. For their national collaborative effort, we would like to thank the ongoing support of the Japanese American Citizens League, Asian American Justice Center, Asian Pacific Americans for Progress, National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance, and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance. We would also like to thank all members, donors, and allies for supporting our work.