Lessons from Marion Barry’s Remarks

Public condemnation has been swift and abundant for former DC mayor and current Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry since his infamous remarks about dirty Asian shops that, in his opinion, “ought to go” and be replaced by African-American business people. It was a sure sign of progress to see the mainstream media turning the heat on Barry, and for groups from advocates to public intellectuals and elected officials make it clear that such divisive and racist rhetoric would not be tolerated.

It is easy to be outraged and to demand apologies. What is much harder to do—though equally necessary—is to reflect on how our community is perceived by others and how we can improve our public image and community relations.

Here is what Mr. Barry actually said at the primary election victory party in April: “We got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops… They ought to go. I’m going to say that right now. But we need African American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.”

Mr. Barry wasn’t just talking about the Asian shops being unsanitary; he saw the Asian business people and their shops as outsiders that didn’t belong in Ward 8, a predominantly black community. While his intention might be to see more black businesses in the community, his tactic of scapegoating by pitting one community against another is most unfortunate and drives a wedge in community relations.

Anyone who has been paying attention should hardly be surprised at these remarks from Marion Barry, who, in spite of his past glory as a civil rights champion in Washington, D.C., has become synonymous with reckless and shameless personal conduct by public officials. What bothered me more than his comments was the audience’s cheers and applause at his words. Right or wrong, Mr. Barry seemed to have echoed a sentiment among some residents in Ward 8 towards Asian American-owned businesses.

This should sound an alarm to the Asian business community and our community leaders about how we are perceived by other communities. The residents in Ward 8 elected Mr. Barry repeatedly to represent them because he is seen as a fighter for the underclass.

Ward 8 still feels left behind in spite of the capital city’s remarkable economic turnaround and massive revitalization since the late ‘90s. It is one thing to be poor, quite another to be “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” as Dr. Martin Luther King put it in his “I have a Dream” speech. That feeling makes some residents resent “outsiders” who are seen as only interested in making money without being part of the local community.

Such a sentiment sounds all too familiar.

Asian immigrants all over the world are known to be industrious and successful in pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. But history teaches us that focusing only on making a living or a fortune may be fine for the short-term interests of individual businesses, but over time may breed resentment among locals who may perceive us as opportunists. Investing in community relations by hiring local residents, volunteering or donating to local charitable or social causes, and living where one does business are not only sound business strategies, but also economic imperatives for survival.

Wake-up Call

What happened in Indonesia during the mid to late ‘90s, when Chinese immigrants were targeted and had their properties and lives violated, should serve as a wake-up call to Asian immigrant communities everywhere. Economic success without community involvement or political empowerment can be a lethal combination that isolates us from the larger society and deepens mistrust between newcomers and the local communities.

I was impressed by a poignant commentary in the Washington Post (April 27), “Still the Same Marion Barry,” by Colby King, a Pulitzer Prize- winning Post columnist who happens to be African American, condemning Mr. Barry’s remarks while putting his life and popularity with some blacks in perspective. It is important that leaders and pundits in the black community speak out on such issues to advance other minorities’ rights and well-being. While we shouldn’t cut slacks for anyone, especially elected leaders, we should also rise above outrage and use each incident as a teachable moment to advance the bigger purpose of social integration.

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