Marion Barry commits new gaffe while apologizing to Asians


Ward 8 council member Marion Barry ,left, talks May 24 with David Chung from the Mayor's Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs before a meeting at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church in Washington. (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST)

D.C. Council member Marion Barry stepped up his campaign on Thursday to mend relations with the Asian community, apologizing again for disparaging remarks he made about Koreans and Filipinos and pledging to work to improve ties between them and African Americans.

Yet on his way toward racial harmony, Barry (D-Ward 8) committed another faux pas — this time directed at Polish people — and presided over a sometimes raucous community meeting at which African Americans repeated complaints about the way Koreans maintain carry-out shops.

Representatives of the Korean, Filipino, Chinese and Japanese communities attended the meeting, held at a church in Southeast Washington.

“Korean stores are filthy,” a woman could be heard saying at the meeting, which was closed to reporters. The woman, who is black, later identified herself as Geraldine Hall and said she lives in the District.

“Inside and out, they are filthy,” she told reporters, speaking of Korean-owned businesses, as she left the meeting. Referring to Barry, she said, “He stirred me up.”

At a news conference after the meeting, Barry and several Asian American leaders sought to present a united front, saying that the dialogue is an important step toward defusing long-standing tension between blacks and Asians. Asked about the underlying sources of the conflict, Barry said the United States “has had racial tensions since it was founded.”

“The Irish caught hell, the Jews caught hell, the Polacks caught hell,” Barry said, invoking a word that Polish people have viewed as disparaging. “We want Ward 8 to be the model of diversity.”

Asked later about his reference to “Polacks,” Barry at first denied using the word, then retracted it, saying, “I meant Poles.”

His remark prompted a demand from Gary Kenzer, executive director of the Chicago-based Polish American Association, that Barry “apologize to the Polish American community of this country.”

“You wouldn’t say a derogatory statement to an African American, a Jewish American, and we deserve the same respect,” he said.

Last month, Barry infuriated Asians with two separate statements. After winning reelection, he pledged to “do something about these Asians coming in, opening businesses, those dirty shops. They ought to go.”

A few weeks later, he offended Filipinos when he pointed out that an increasing number of nurses have come here from the Philippines. “And no offense, but let’s grow our own teachers, let’s grow our own nurses,” he said, “so that we don’t have to be scrounging around in our community clinics and other kind of places, having to hire people from somewhere else.”

The remarks prompted criticism from Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), Barry’s council colleagues and an array of Asian civic leaders, including the Philippine ambassador in Washington. Asian advocacy groups started a “Say Sorry, Barry” petition, which collected 700 signatures.

Barry was already trying to defuse tensions when he was hospitalized for a blood clot Sunday night while at a convention in Las Vegas. He was cared for by a Filipino nurse, and he praised the way he was treated.

“I stand corrected,” he tweeted. “I truly didn’t mean 2 hurt or offend.”

As he arrived for Thursday’s meeting at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church in Anacostia, Barry ordered his aides to create a circle of chairs for the participants, most of whom are affiliated with Asian advocacy groups. A handful of African Americans also attended.

Barry then ordered an aide to ask more than a dozen journalists to leave the auditorium, saying: “They’re trying to get news. We have our own agenda.” The aide covered the entrance’s small windows with white sheets.

But reporters could hear portions of the conversation between Barry and the audience. An unidentified woman said it was up to the Asian proprietors “to decide how you’re going to have your business.”

“I’m not going to go in if your walls are cracked . . . if there are vermin,” she said. “We are Americans. I don’t care if you’re Korean, Chinese . . . African. Be an American.” Referring to Barry, the woman said, “He represents me, okay? . . . Until you decide you want to be American, our objections will remain.”

In response, another unidentified woman could be heard saying, “We are American” and that workdays for the owners of such businesses “begin at 3 a.m. and don’t end until 12 o’clock.”

At the news conference afterward, several Asian advocates said they appreciated Barry’s apology. One referred to him as a “national figure.” But they also said that enough is enough.

“The Asian American community is done being polite,” said Tom Hayashi, executive director of OCA, an advocacy group for Asian and Pacific Americans. “We are not about to stand aside when there are injustices.”

Barry appeared to light up as the head of the D.C. chapter of a Filipino nursing association talked of visiting Ward 8 schools to encourage children to become nurses.

“We’re moving forward,” he said.

He promised more meetings, and also that inspectors will visit restaurants and other food establishments.

“People in Ward 8 cannot be subject to food that is unsanitary,” he said, then added, at the prompting of a reporter, “no matter who’s cooking it. White, black, Asian.”

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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