The Politics of Race

By Jonathan I.Z. Agronsky

British American. 380 pp. $21.95

IN THE late 1960s, years before home rule came to the District of Columbia, Pride, a federally funded jobs program run by the militant civil-rights leader Marion Barry, came to the attention of the U.S. attorney's office, writes Jonathan Agronsky in Marion Barry: The Politics of Race.

A fencing operation for stolen goods was being run out of a Pride-owned service station in the Shaw neighborhood near downtown Washington, an ex-police officer told Agronsky, but cops never made arrests because they were sure no one would be prosecuted. "We just couldn't get {the D.C. corporation counsel or the U.S. attorney} to do anything." The problem, the veteran WUSA-TV producer Rich Adams explained to the author, was that the the government felt hamstrung by Barry's "mau-mauing" in the wake of the riots following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and "didn't want to make waves."

The anecdote is important because NAACP director Benjamin Hooks and others have portrayed U.S. Attorney Jay Stephens's pursuit and 1990 conviction of Barry for cocaine possession as one more link in a chain of federal persecution stretching back 20 years to J. Edgar Hoover's harrassment of King. The Pride story suggests that, on the contrary, after King's death there were interludes of virtual exemption for some black leaders, interludes that coincided with the years of Barry's rise to power and that were big enough, at times, for him to drive a Lincoln town car through.

"As I sifted through the documentary record," Agronsky writes in his preface, "I was . . . amazed at the skill, frequency and seeming ease with which Barry, until the very end, was able to use his minority status to extract concessions from the white establishment " and "emerge unscathed from repeated allegations of wrongdoing . . ."

Yet Agronsky, a reporter for the Voice of America, doesn't develop the Pride anecdote and many similar stories. He limits his account of Barry's rise and fall to a respectable and handy reprise of what Washingtonians already know. This is journalism between hard covers, not the second draft of history Washington needs now as it follows the administration of its third elected mayor.

Half the book consists of condensed transcripts of the sting-operation video, the trial and the published commentary that surrounded them -- a play-by-play account rendered in an unobtrusive, reportorial idiom. For the other half, Agronsky traveled from the Mississippi Delta town of Itta Bena, where Barry, the child of sharecroppers, lost his father amid murky circumstances that must have marked him deeply; to Memphis, where he came of age as a civil-rights worker whose courage and sweetness of temperament impressed the journalist David Halberstam; and, finally, to Washington.

Yet the book doesn't make Barry more accessible to the reader who has followed his career, and Agronsky only dimly illuminates the vexing questions District residents faced when, as a jury, they came close to rebuking the federal government for its zealous pursuit of Barry, and then, as as an electorate, found Barry unfit to serve in their own government.

Why did the civil-rights movement enter the political life of the District in the person of this enigmatic, endearing, ultimately disappointing man? Were his strengths, nurtured amid the strict disciplines of 1950s Memphis and of nonviolent protest, undermined by the social disintegration in 1960s Washington that once prompted him to wash a boy's mouth out with soap after he had used a four-letter word? Might he have resisted addiction in a more structured, hopeful environment?

What shifting currents in black and American politics in the 1960s and '70s did Barry ride to become a compelling presence on the eve of his election as mayor in 1978? Was his increasingly demagogic, racial politics a product of the contradictory expansion of black numbers and black legal rights amid a decay of urban working-class opportunity? If so, was his style any different from that of New York City's Rep. Adam Clayton Powell or Detroit's Mayor Coleman Young? WHAT FAULT lines in the District's own political culture accommodated and protected Barry at the end, when media personalities such as Cathy Hughes and Mary Cox, demagogues such as Bishop George Augustus Stallings Jr. and Minister Louis Farrakhan, and some angry black jurors and politicians seemed, for one long moment, to hold an entire community in thrall to hopeless conspiracy theories?

Does Sharon Pratt Dixon's election as mayor and Barry's defeat in his city council race mean that those theories are exhausted? Is Barry just the local emblem of a passing style, a colorful, protective posture embellished almost lovingly in the black community's isolation and relative impotence across the years? Will it be replaced by the transracial, comparatively technocratic politics of Dixon, Prince George's County State's Attorney Alex Williams and Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder?

Perhaps, but for hard-pressed blacks, forsaking leaders like Barry will mean unlearning the lessons he and his counterparts taught with a compelling if perverse logic, born of real hurts and injustices. One is that since white society cannot be redeemed, it might as well be ripped off. Another is that, when in doubt, you can run your mouth about whites' alleged hatred of strong black leaders; so doing, you can deflect legitimate black anger into a destructive isolation from "white" institutions, an isolation mediated only by the leader.

Barry had the ability to dramatize and, in so doing, salve ancient wounds in this way, even as he accommodated social inequities that deepened them. His third, perhaps deepest, lesson was that it is sometimes more satisfying to hurt than to hope. That made him the center of a certain perverse energy and affection, not without its achievements.

If blacks coming in from the margins must surrender whatever was perversely comforting in leaders like Barry, whites must give up something, too. Because they have excluded blacks from the larger society's routine, subtle corruptions, we have almost expected them to come to public life as bearers not only of ripoffs and rebellion but also of a kind of salvation, a reservoir of special perception and feeling tapped in black music and the searing moral force of a Martin Luther King Jr. To see a new black leadership settling down to the unglamorous business of running municipalities is to watch the angels withdraw along with the demons. It is to surrender condescension along with contempt.

There are two ways for a book to explore the roots and prospects of this great shift in our political culture. One is to unearth new information that helps us know leaders like Barry, their circumstances and their milieux better. The other is to think deeply about the record one has assembled -- in short, to write history, not journalism. No one book can complete such a project, but, as far as Barry and Washington are concerned, the first has yet to be written.

Jim Sleeper, an editorial writer for New York Newsday, is the author of "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York."