Most politicians try to keep their victory speeches short, sweet and platitudinous. But most politicians aren’t Marion Barry.
The D.C. Council member and former four-term mayor used the moments after learning of his Ward 8 primary win Tuesday to criticize Asian owners of businesses in his ward, suggesting that they close their “dirty shops.” His racially loaded remarks prompted a torrent of criticism Thursday and distracted from Barry’s sweeping victory in a third consecutive Democratic primary.
“We’ve got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops,” he said in the course of laying out his vision for the ward. “They ought to go. I’ll just say that right now, you know. But we need African American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.”
The remarks were captured on camera by WRC-TV (Channel 4), which first reported the remarks late Wednesday. Even longtime allies were shocked that Barry, who came of age in the civil rights movement, would express his concerns in such brazenly racial terms.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting member of Congress and a fellow civil rights veteran, told Barry that she was “stunned by the offensive nature of the comments,” according to a statement.
Norton, the statement said, “reminded Barry of how long she had known him and the values they first shared when they were students together in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the South fighting for racial justice.”
Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) and several other Democratic council colleagues released statements or gave interviews repudiating Barry’s comments.
By late Thursday, Barry backed off the remarks, saying through his Twitter account that he is “very sorry for offending the Asian American community” with an “admittedly bad choice of words.” But he continued to voice concern about conditions at some restaurants and other businesses in Ward 8, which he said are owned mainly by Asians.
“I admit, I could and should have said it differently. But the facts are still very present in our daily lives here,” he tweeted. “We are tired of sub-standard treatment, tired of being kept [at] arms length distance, tired of the lack of community engagement.”
Barry said in an interview that the apology was heartfelt: “It is as solid as Marion Barry can make it. And believe it, because I have a history of not doing anything to purposely disparage any group of people.”
Outrage had mounted through the day. One Facebook page appeared to demand that Barry apologize to the Asian community, and by late Thursday, it had more than 200 “likes.” In a joint statement, five suburban Maryland lawmakers of Asian descent — Democratic state Dels. Sam Arora, Kumar P. Barve, Susan C. Lee, Aruna Miller and Kris Valderrama — called on Barry to apologize.
“At best, Mr. Barry’s attack on Asian Americans is deeply troubling, and at worst it is race baiting,” they said.
It is the second time in recent years Barry has alienated members of a minority group. A longtime supporter of gay rights as mayor, he vexed most gay and lesbian leaders by announcing his opposition to same-sex marriage in 2009.
As the outcry loudened Thursday, Barry initially stood by his comments. He said in a midday interview that his critics should “get to know Marion Barry and his stellar record on civil rights” — including Asian matters.
“I’ve spent the last 50 years of my life fighting for justice and equality of all people,” he said. “Those five people don’t know Marion Barry at all. They know my name; they don’t know my record.”
That record, he noted, includes establishing a sister city relationship with Beijing, helping to erect the Chinatown Friendship Archway and establishing the city Office of Asian-Pacific Islander Affairs during his four terms as mayor.
But he gave voice to decades-old tensions between the largely black residents of the District’s poorest neighborhoods and the many Asian owners of the carryout, convenience and liquor stores that serve them. The shops, he said, are dirty and unwelcoming, often placing thick bulletproof plexiglass between customers and employees.
“I’m not doing anything except trying to have a renaissance of our community and get some respect. A number of these restaurants serve high-caloric food, bad food, et cetera, but the more important thing, they don’t participate in the community,” Barry said. “That’s what I object to. I don’t care who it is.”
Asked why he singled out Asians in his remarks, Barry said: “Because that’s reality. Who owns these little restaurants? Who owns them? You know, Asians. . . . 90 percent of all the small restaurants in Ward 8, at least.” It is difficult to verify that claim.
He added, “We’re spending our money there, and we demand respect. We demand they participate in community affairs. We demand they give jobs to Ward 8 people regardless of their cultural situation. That’s as American as apple pie.”
Barry tweeted photos Thursday of the facade and interior of a Congress Heights carryout and added, “Funny how folk expect us to sit down, shut up and expect lower standards than what they enjoy in their communities.” It is not clear whether the business is Asian-owned.
The owner of the restaurant, the China Inn Deli, said he was “very offended” by Barry’s comments. “It’s because of the neighborhood and how it is,” said the man, who did not give his name. “It’s a low-income community. The crime rate is high. We just have to make a living.”
The use of plexiglass, in particular, not only creates a physical barrier but also represents what divides the businesses and residents. Barry’s Congress Heights neighborhood, for instance, suffered a recent spree of violent robberies, including one in which a gas station attendant was fatally shot. But many residents consider it insulting that businesses insist on bulletproof barriers.
Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) said she does not patronize shops that have erected plexiglass. “It sends the wrong message for the residents of a community,” she said. “It sends the message that we’re all criminals.”
One prominent Korean entrepreneur criticized Barry for lumping all Asian business owners together, but he said he understood the root of his concerns with “dirty shops.”
“He shouldn’t have said Asians,” said Gary Cha, who owns the Yes! Organic grocery chain. But he added that “any of those people running a dirty store that have an adverse impact on the community should go. And sometimes I am ashamed some of the Asian business owners don’t spend the time to keep the stores in a respectful manner.”
He added, “I do go around and say, ‘Look, if you clean your store, your business will probably go up by 65 percent — no-brainer.’ I’ve probably said that a thousand times to people, but it doesn’t work. . . . In that sense I am with [Barry], but just like saying things about African Americans — not all African Americans do certain things.”
Cha — who said relations between Asian businesses and the black residents they serve are “a sensitive issue” — has opened an east-of-the-Anacostia River store on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, in Ward 7, but he has no locations in Ward 8. He is a past president of the Korean-American Grocers Association, which lobbies on behalf of Asian small-business owners.
Like many of the city’s Asian leaders, Cha fondly recalls steps that Barry took as mayor to involve them in the city government. He also noted Barry’s advancing age — he’s 76 — in saying, “I think we should just let it go.”
“I’m sure a lot of people will disagree with my view, but that’s what makes this country such a great place to live and work,” Cha said. “You can disagree with people and still be friends, and I totally disagree with him, 100 percent, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be my enemy or I am his enemy.”