President Obama, Marion Barry: Two takes on 'empowerment'

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, February 20, 2010

President Obama and D.C. Council member Marion Barry obviously had something different in mind when they each recently referred to the notion of "empowerment."

In his Feb. 1 National African American History Month proclamation, President Obama said he selected the theme "The History of Black Economic Empowerment" to honor African Americans who overcame racial barriers to reach "financial independence and the security of self empowerment that comes with it."

Barry, used it, too, when he defended himself this week against a D.C. Council-authorized independent investigation that found that, among other improper actions, he had benefited from a city contract that he obtained for a former girlfriend. Claiming he is a "different kind of council member," Barry said he sought office to get resources to the people of his ward, and do all he could "to empower them."

Unlike Barry's use of the word, Obama's "empowerment" referred to African American trailblazers who overcame racial prejudice to become skilled workers, professionals and entrepreneurs. Obama praised that generation of African Americans who acquired land and founded banks, educational institutions, newspapers, hospitals and businesses of all kinds. His proclamation honored those who rose above "the injustices of their time" -- black codes, Jim Crow laws -- to take actions that bettered their lives and those of others.

Self-empowerment, in Obama's view, envisions African Americans, and all Americans of today, pushing their children to reach the full measure of their potential just as the successful innovators in previous generations pushed their children to achieve something greater.

Obama could have been talking about people such as Madame C.J. Walker, the first African American female millionaire, Oprah Winfrey, BET founder Robert Johnson, and other entrepreneurs and achievers who refused to accept the inferior roles assigned by the larger society. Self-empowerment, in other words, promotes self-sufficiency.

National African American History Month is one way, suggested Obama, to recognize their courage and tenacity, and their contribution to the "triumph of the American Dream."

Barry, on the other hand, seems to hold himself up as a source of empowerment in Ward 8.

Let's look a little more closely, however, at whom Barry "empowers."

The investigation concluded that the council member had obtained a D.C. government contract for a woman with whom he had a financial, personal and sexual relationship; that he misled authorities about the purpose of the contract; and that he received part of the contract's proceeds in payment for loans he claimed to have made to her.

The investigation also found that public funds steered by Barry to grantees in Ward 8 "primarily benefited a few confidantes and supporters of the Council Member."

Barry's use of "empower" turns the word on its head.

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