In the course of a remarkable D.C. Council hearing today, Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) deflected pointed criticism of his recent controversial remarks about Asians and repeatedly blamed the media for taking the comments out of context.
Barry has twice come under fire in recent weeks, first for singling out Asian-owned businesses in his ward for being “dirty” and then, this week, for lamenting the number of immigrant nurses “particularly from the Philippines.”
”The media has a way of distorting things,” he said Thursday. “They’re in the business of sensationalism.” He spoke while presiding over a hearing on the budget of the city’s Office of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs.
Barry’s anti-media broadsides did not prevent several Asian-American leaders from offering testimony criticizing Barry’s comments.
David Chung, the chairman of the D.C. Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs, was perhaps the most eloquent of Barry’s critics.
”My father is actually one of those dirty store owners you were referring to,” he said, noting that his family has run a Ward 7 convenience store for more than 20 years. “When you made those statements, you broke my heart. . . . A lot of those store owners like my father are now concerned.”
Chung asked Barry for a retraction of his comments and a formal apology. (Barry apologized for giving offense in the wake of the shop-owner comments , but some Asian leaders were not satisfied.)
Barry did not offer an apology and berated Chung after he referred to Barry’s comments as “racist.”
The former four-term mayor told Chung that he knew well what racism entailed: “I as a black man have been disrespected. I as a black man have been discriminated against,” he said. “To say what I said is a racist remark is 1000 percent untrue.”
To other witnesses, including Rosetta Lai, the executive director of Asian American LEAD, Barry responded to their concerns by asking them how long they had lived in Washington and whether or not they had personally contacted his office with their concerns.
It was wrong, he suggested, for critics to ignore his history of civil rights advances and for them to register their concerns with reporters without personally contacting him first. Chung and other witnesses said they had left messages with Barry’s office that were not returned.
After Lai referred to his statements as “disenfranchising and race-baiting,” Barry told her she had “fallen into the trap” set by an overzealous media corps.
Barry specifically criticized WRC-TV’s Tom Sherwood; it was a WRC-TV camera that caught his references to “dirty shops” owned by Asians during the course of his Election Night victory speech after the April 3 primaries.
Sherwood, Barry said, “knew he was trying to set me up as person who is racially biased, who he knows is not the case.”
Barry had no questions for Julie Koo, the director of the city’s liaison office with the Asian Community, who presented her office’s budget request.
On Wednesday, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) sent Barry a letter telling Barry that “[i]t is critical that we choose words carefully in talking about our hardworking civil servants and District residents.”
“Unfortunately,” Brown wrote, “such comments, taken out of context or not, are divisive and reflect poorly on your distinguished record, as well on that of the Council as an institution.”