The latest Marion Barry controversy burned bright Thursday, but it’s now mostly burnt out.
In case you missed it: Barry (D-Ward 8) made comments late Tuesday at his primary night victory party suggesting that the Asian-American owners of businesses in his ward run “dirty shops” that “ought to go.” After the comments were reported late Wednesday, the rebuke was swift, and by Thursday evening, Barry had tendered an apology of sorts.
But the episode — which gave new voice to decades-old tensions between the residents of largely black inner city neighborhoods and the many Asian owners of the businesses that serve them — deserves a coda.
I’m happy to give some space here to Mark L. Keam, a Democrat who represents a portion of Fairfax County in the Virginia House of Delegates. He’s the first Korean-American and the first Asian-born immigrant elected to serve in that body, and he has valuable experience bridging the longstanding divide between Asian businesses and their black customers.
Here’s what he has to share:
As the popular saying goes, I believe the past couple of days provide us with a “teaching moment” in race relations.
There are many ways this episode can be analyzed, but as someone who has personally dealt with these issues before, I want to offer some historical perspectives and suggestions to help our community move forward in a productive and positive way.
First, I want to recognize that Council member Barry did the right thing by acknowledging that his words were offensive and harmful. I hate it, though, when someone who does something offensive decides to apologize but qualifies it by apologizing only to a select group of those who might have been offended.
Here, Mr. Barry goes out of his way to single out the “Asian American community” for being offended. Let’s always remember that anytime anyone denigrates any group of people based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc., they offend all people, not just the group they target.
Second, regardless of whether or not Mr. Barry apologized to our satisfaction, the real issue here is in trying to understand what drove him to say such racist things in the first place.
Mr. Barry’s original remarks were troubling not only because of the blatant insults he hurled at “Asians” who come to his ward and open “dirty shops,” but what he offered as the solution: Mr. Barry wants these “Asians” to be gone from his ward.
“They ought to go. I’m going to say that right now,” he said.
From a quick review of some comments left below the news articles, it seems that there are plenty of people who agree with Mr. Barry’s assessment that these stores are not in good condition and that the store owners are not showing respect for the local community.
These are grievances I have heard before, not only in D.C. but also in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and other large urban areas where Asian-American entrepreneurs open stores in predominantly African-American neighborhoods where they themselves do not live.
Exactly 20 years ago this month, on April 29, 1992, I was working in Los Angeles when the largest riot in that city’s history erupted after a jury found that the police officers who beat Rodney King were not guilty.
After several days of complete chaos, riots, looting and burning, Los Angeles suffered 53 deaths, 3,600 fires, 1,100 destroyed buildings, 2,000 damaged businesses and property damages totaling $1 billion.
Much of the physical damage was suffered by Korean Americans who operated stores in predominantly African-American or Hispanic communities. In addition, a young Korean-American man was shot and killed, and countless others were wounded from gun shots, beatings and other injuries.
Although the Rodney King verdict was the spark that lit the flame, there was plenty of underbrush building up in Los Angeles for years that helped keep the April fires burning for days.
A year before the riots in 1991, a surveillance videotape from a South Central liquor store surfaced showing an altercation between a Korean-American store owner and a teenage African-American customer accused of stealing a bottle of orange juice. The scuffle ended in the tragic shooting death of the girl, and the store owner was eventually convicted of voluntary manslaughter. When the judge imposed what was considered to be a light sentence of probation and community service, the African-American community alleged racial injustice.
Hollywood and popular culture didn’t help calm the situation by promoting only the negative stereotype of the rude and greedy Korean merchant in films like Spike Lee’s “Do the Right thing” and rap songs like Ice Cube’s “Black Korea.”
With the sense of mutual mistrust coupled with the economic downturn in the early 1990s, it was only a matter of time before a large-scale racial conflict would occur, and the completely unrelated King case did just that.
In the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots, numerous community-based efforts were established to ensure better race relations as well as to combat the root causes of poverty in inner cities. Efforts were made, for instance, to help African Americans purchase the stores in their neighborhoods that Korean Americans abandoned.
As incidents of violence and boycotts against Korean-American stores spread to other cities, similar race relations efforts were replicated by local Korean-American community groups in New York, New Jersey, Chicago and elsewhere.
Between 1998 and 2001, I volunteered as an unpaid community organizer in D.C., working with a multiethnic coalition of community and faith-based groups and leaders to replicate the lessons learned from Los Angeles to race relations efforts in Washington.
Through a grant from the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, we launched the “Washington Area Partnership for Immigrants” and also the “Building One Neighborhood” pilot program.
These were volunteer efforts focused on developing local leaders from different ethnic and racial groups within the D.C. communities who could build long-term trust and personal relationships that could help overcome potential future racial conflicts.
In tandem with these projects, the Asian Pacific American Bar Association sponsored a series of training sessions for D.C. police and other local government authorities on the different cultural traditions and customs of Asian immigrants.
The goal of these sessions was to explain the cultural differences that could be mistaken as being rude gestures which could then potentially lead to altercations.
For example, in some Asian cultures, it is considered rude to look at a stranger directly in the eye or to physically touch a stranger in an intentional way. So when a recent immigrant from Asia who is working as a cashier refuses to look at his African-American customer in the eye or to place the change directly in the hands of the customer, it is not because the immigrant wants to be rude.
Instead, the Asian immigrant is actually showing respect to the customer. Yet it is easy to understand how the African-American community at large would perceive such behavior as off-putting.
We also worked with the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. to set up hate crime training to understand and identify potential racially motivated crimes against Asian-American victims, as well as to educate the Asian immigrant community about these types of laws.
These grassroots projects included door-to-door surveys to measure attitudes of both Asian-American merchants and African-American customers. I joined numerous Asian-American volunteers in visiting dozens of stores throughout the District, many of them “dirty” and with plexiglass barriers. I also spoke with many neighborhood customers, church leaders, police officers and government officials to encourage as broad a base of participation from the African American residents.
A dozen years after our initial programs to build better race relations in D.C., I cannot tell you whether they worked or not. There are no objective set of analytics or results I can point to.
I do know, however, that we have been fortunate in having avoided any large scale racial conflicts like the horrible experience of Los Angeles. We have also established channels for civic communication between residents and merchants.
These results did not happen on their own. Here are some proactive reasons for how D.C. has kept its peace:
• The D.C. mayor’s Office on Asian Pacific Islander Affairs — established during Mr. Barry’s mayoralty — has been diligent in reaching out to Asian-American merchants to encourage them to be better neighbors. They serve as an early warning detector, stomping out any potential sparks of racial tensions.
• Trade associations such as the Korean-American Grocers Association and Dry Cleaners Association have self-policed their members to invest back into the communities where they do business. They hold regular block parties, holiday events, and provide scholarships to give back to the community.
• Commercial and government programs were created to specifically target investments in inner cities and to encourage entrepreneurs from within these communities.
Is there room for improvement? Certainly the Asian-American store owners could be friendlier to their customers, hire more local workers, invest more profits back into the neighborhoods and keep their stores cleaner.
Should they take down plexiglass barriers? That’s up to each merchant and the level of public safety in that particular neighborhood.
Should they offer to sell their stores to African Americans and leave D.C.? If the free enterprise system and the marketplace work as they should, then this question should answer itself.
Can the government do more to combat poverty and dropout rates, fight drugs and other crimes, provide a better social safety net and improve the quality of lives for all residents of inner cities? That’s up to the elected leaders of the government and those who vote their priorities.
Based on my personal experiences of living through the hell of Los Angeles in 1992 and trying to be proactive in D.C. in 1998, I have learned one lesson above all else: You never know when, where or how any one small mistake or incident can spark the flames of prejudice.
That is why it is so critical that everyone who works with other races need to be mindful of their every word and conduct aimed at the other group.