I lived in Washington, D.C. for a while in the ’90s, during Marion Barry’s second term as Mayor. I remember it as the city where I had to hail cabs while my Black colleagues stood back from the curb or the wait for a ride could be a long one.
Having some experience of D.C. and Mr. Barry behind me, his recent anti-Asian rants, while sad, were no surprise.
But the subtle and not-so-subtle racism expressed in the responses? That kind of caught me off guard. I mean, his obvious bigotry ought to be addressed, for sure, but holding him to a higher standard because he’s Black? That’s just uncool.
Now, to make matters worse, his apology to Asian American constituents included an anti-Polish slur. Sigh. Reminds me of an uncle I’d rather not name.
My uncle and Marion Barry are about the same age. They were both in their early 30s when Richard Nixon took office. Nixon was taped repeatedly referring to Blacks using the “N” word and worse in conversations with Henry Kissinger. Nixon once complained to John Erlichman that Great Society social programs were a waste because Blacks were genetically inferior to whites.
For people of Mr. Barry’s generation, overt racism was like the air we breath. I’m not excusing it, but I think it’s worth bearing in mind.
More important, I think, is to be clear that there’s quite a difference between the racism of Marion Barry and that of, say, Republican leaders. Their explicit strategy is to exploit white racism in order to build a Republican majority in Congress.
One piece of that strategy, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere in this blog, has been to target African Americans in a tough on crime campaign, the cornerstone of which is the war on drugs. The mention of Nixon is apropos here since tough on crime was a brainchild of his administration. Today, there are three times more African Americans in prison than in college dorms, and the ratio is not much better for Latinos.
Yup, a little perspective would do us some good here, especially since reducing racism to insensitive statements requiring public apologies trivializes the most damaging, less overtly expressed racism of those for whom racism = mega-millions in profit.
That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to run across this blog post about Mr. Barry’s racist rants. It sort of puts the whole incident in context. And on a weekend that evokes nostalgia in many of us, it felt just right.
I’m taking a few days off, so it’s what I’ve got for you. Now, pass me a Bloody Mary and turn on the ESPN.