“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.
Barry backs off
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.