Correction to This Article
Steven Pearlstein's column in the May 3 Business section incorrectly said that boxing promoter Rock Newman organized a news conference addressing the selection of an owner for the Washington Nationals baseball team. Newman participated in the news conference, but he was not its organizer.

Barry's Racial Play Is Old School

Marion Barry criticized the racial makeup of the group favored to own the Washington Nationals.
Marion Barry criticized the racial makeup of the group favored to own the Washington Nationals. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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By Steven Pearlstein
Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Here's a little unsolicited advice for Marion Barry in the wake of his pathetic attempt to play the race card once again and jam Major League Baseball over its choice of new owners for the Washington Nationals:

Get over it!

Barry and fellow council member Vincent Orange Sr. were the only District politicians with the bad judgment to show up at a news conference Monday organized by boxing promoter Rock Newman, who was apparently miffed that his overtures to join the soon-to-be-named ownership group, led by Bethesda developer Theodore Lerner, had been rebuffed.

Barry's complaint was that minorities recruited by the Lerner family recently to join its ownership group -- including former U.S. transportation secretary Rodney Slater, banker Doyle Mitchell and BET executive Paxton Baker -- were really nothing more than "blacks being rented for a day."

It also wasn't clear what the difference is between these "rented blacks" and Rock Newman, except the obvious one, that they are not shameless self-promoters plugged into the Marion Barry political machine. And how strange that Marion Barry suddenly takes such moral offense at the idea of African Americans acting as "front men" in business transactions, as if there had never been allegations during his administration of minority businessmen setting up shell companies to win city contracts.

Barry, of course, is hardly the first ward politician to dress up the old-fashioned shakedown in the garments of racial justice. Back when he was running Operation PUSH, Jesse Jackson was not above announcing boycotts against companies that, coincidentally, had failed to promise to do business with designated black firms. But even Jackson realized long ago that the dynamics of race relations in America had moved on.

Except, of course, in the District of Columbia. Here, you can still get political debate about whether this candidate or that group is "black" enough to be trusted. Or you get complaints that while some black people may have national reputations outside the region, they are not worthy because they are relative unknowns at the District Building, as if that were a useful criterion for anything.

The plausible-sounding rationale for Barry's complaint is that Washington is a majority-black city pouring 611 million taxpayer dollars into a stadium for a baseball league that has a long history of discriminating against black players and coaches and a strong tradition of ignoring black fans. The least it could do is pick an ownership group whose equity structure reflected the diversity of the city.

But on closer inspection, the argument is mostly malarkey.

For one thing, the city is becoming much more racially and ethnically diverse, with the fastest-growing group being Hispanics, even as the black population continues to shrink. And yet you don't hear Marion Barry complaining about the lack of Hispanics on the ownership groups. Indeed, as far as I can tell, the group he favors, headed by white Indiana businessman Jeff Smulyan, has none, and the one he opposes -- Lerner's group -- includes former assistant Treasury secretary George Munoz and Raul Romero, a Panama-born engineer who is a top contributor to President Bush.

It is also not the case, as Barry suggests, that the financial burden for the new stadium would fall on the District's black taxpayers, who he apparently feels deserve some sort of real or symbolic payback through the composition of the ownership group. The District's role will be to finance the stadium -- that is, to borrow the money needed for construction. But that money will be paid back, with interest, by the team owners (mostly white) in the form of rent, team fans (mostly white) who pay the sales taxes on tickets and popcorn, and the District's biggest companies and law firms (mostly white-owned and -controlled) that pay the new stadium tax.

It is also more than a bit disingenuous for the District to pitch itself to Major League Baseball as the logical home for a team that will draw support from a wide and growing multi-state region -- and then, once it gets the designation, to act like a small-time parochial burg fixated on its self-interest and petty political squabbles.

What's most discouraging, however, is the persistence in the District of a political culture built around victimization, black power and settling old racial scores.

These days it manifests itself in a quiet campaign to restore a "black majority" to the D.C. Council, even if it means defeating white incumbents who have been stalwart champions of the poor and dispossessed, such as Kathy Patterson and Phil Mendelson.

It manifests itself when only black candidates are considered politically acceptable for positions like school superintendent or chief financial officer, rather than the best candidate of any race.

This arithmetic form of affirmative action may have been useful and necessary 20 years ago. But as The Post's business section on Monday revealed in a set of splendid articles, the search for diversity in most other settings now goes well beyond the box-checking, set-asides and quotas. The new focus is on the more subtle cultural factors that in the past have led to exclusions of employees and suppliers not just on the basis of race, but on the basis of a wide variety of factors and characteristics. It is premised on the idea that there is a lot of untapped talent and ideas out there for companies to grab, leading to a whole new way of doing business.

Against that backdrop, I'm sure Major League Baseball and its owners have a way to go before they become national models for diversity and inclusion. But I'm fairly confident they are a lot further along in that process than Marion Barry.

Steven Pearlstein will host a Web discussion today at 11 a.m. at washingtpost.com. He can be reached atpearlsteins@washpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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