April 25, 2012

UPON HEARING the latest bigoted comments from D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), the first impulse is to ignore them. The former mayor, by word and deed, long ago ceased to command respect, so why pretend that what he says really matters? Such thinking, though, gives a pass to Mr. Barry’s toxic prejudices and to those who have enabled him by years of looking away and making excuses.

Filipino nurses were the objects of Mr. Barry’s most recent spewing. At a hearing Monday on the University of the District of Columbia’s budget, Mr. Barry said: “If you go to the hospital now, you’ll find a number of immigrants who are nurses, particularly from the Philippines. And no offense, but let’s grow our own nurses, and so that we don’t have to go scrounging in our community clinics and other kinds of places, having to hire people from somewhere else.” The comments came just weeks after he was forced to apologize (sort of) for insults about Asian Americans. “We’ve got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops,” he said at a party celebrating his victory in the Ward 8 Democratic primary.

In both instances, Mr. Barry claimed that people were missing the larger points he was trying to make — i.e., how the University of the District of Columbia needs to train more local residents to meet the growing national demand for nurses or how some carryout restaurants ill-serve the neighborhoods of Anacostia. He either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that such issues can be discussed without maligning people by race and country.

Mr. Barry’s racism — let’s call it what it is — helps to perpetuate the divisions in this city. No matter how catchy the slogan, the District won’t become one city as long as its leaders look the other way when demagogues such as Mr. Barry pit one group of residents against another. Whether it is white vs. black or native-born vs. immigrant, there should be no place for such intolerance. It is clear that Mr. Barry is beyond rehabilitation. But one step that should be taken by council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) is to remove him as head of the committee that oversees agencies that serve as liaisons between the government and minority communities.