Those Were The Days…

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.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

3 replies on “Those Were The Days…”

Good comments. I’ve been trying to express something similar over the recent misogynistic image of S.E. Cupp and this corresponding Slate article ( Again, it’s important to make a distinction between individual offensive remarks, which yes can be made by seemingly progressive individuals (and which are still, just terrible) and the institutional varieties, parties and peoples that feed off of or legislate racism and sexism.

When you come up with the words I would love to read them. The misogyny of the left when it comes to folks like Sarah Palin, Nikki Haley, Michelle Bachman, et al is totally unacceptable. Do I disagree with those women? Yes, powerfully. But does that mean we should exploit sexist stereotypes to marginalize them? Nope. It’s ineffective strategy. We need to deal with the issues or new messengers will just keep popping up, and we can’t do that by playing the patriarchy game.

As an African American female activist, it is disturbing and, yes, very tiring, to hear the pandering to, and promotion of, narrow, even nasty, points of view that are designed to appeal to a very narrow demographic; typically middle-and-upper class white, and male. It’s equally dangerous and marginalizing to use gender as a dismissive tool to challenge women who hold opposing, even radical or out-there views, based only on their gender. That’s familiar patriarchy. I find a lot to challenge on the Left, Right, and even Farther, without patriarchy popping up time and time again. I appreciate both of you for calling out stereotyping and marginalization. Thank you, thank you for your pen power truths!

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