There is a story, apocryphal for sure, about the Jewish man with a stutter who goes for an audition as a radio announcer. On the way into the building, he asks directions of an elevator operator and on the way out the operator asks him how he's done. He shakes his head.
"D-didn't g-get the job," he says.
"Why not?" the operator dead-pans.
"Anti-S-semitism," he replies.
Every ethnic and racial group must tell a similar story, but it sure comes to mind more and more frequently in Washington. At first it was Joseph Yeldell, the former crack administrator for the former mayor, who attributed his troubles to racism. And then, a bit later, it was the former mayor himself and now, just barely into office and enjoying something of a free ride from the press, it is the latest mayor, a man who can remove a snow bank with mere words -- Marion Barry. It was he who on Friday attributed press criticism of his performance to his race.
"The Washington Post and the Washington Star expect me to be five times as good as a white mayor ought to be with five times less resources," Barry told a group of GSA employes. He was, it appears, responding to criticism for the way the city handled the recent snow storm. In the process, he got everything all wrong. In the first place, the racist way to judge his performance is to expect less of him because he's black -- not more -- and in the second place he has been getting the kind of press here that Stalin used to get in Russia.And last, we've never had a white mayor so there is no way to judge it.
The mayor has said this sort of thing before, most recently while attending the Democratic miniconvention in Memphis, but what apparently prompted him to repeat this theme was the price he paid for his canny decision to allow a reporter to accompany him in his limousine on a drive through the snow-bound city. Wherever the reporter saw snow piled up, the mayor saw clean streets. Where others saw block after block where reindeer couldn't travel, Barry saw miracles of snow removal. All in all, the mayor from the back seat of his limousine took a look and pronounced the snow removal performance "fantastic." If he was not the mayor and the subject was not snow, his remarks would have entitled him to at least one day's observation in St. Elizabeths.
But he is the mayor and the subject is snow and so some allowances have to be made. In Chicago, the same subject moved the mayor there, Michael Bilandic, to heights of rhetorical silliness. Under attack for the way the city handled snow removal, he likened himself under siege to the early Christians, balck slaves, persecuted Poles and proud Jews, or maybe it was proud Poles and persecuted Jews. It is best to let Bilandic speak for himself: "It is our turn to be in the trenches to see if we are made of the same stuff as the early Christians, the persecuted Jews, the proud Poles, the blacks and the Latinos."
But snow does not excuse everything. The fact of the matter is that for some time now certain politicians in this city have been playing the game of yelling race whenever it politically suits them. The thing has become so common that newspapers don't even bother to mention it or, they do, they bury the stories back among the obituaries. At a recent school board meeting, for instance, board member Frank Shaffer-Corona attacked two opponents of a resolution to have the schools celebrate Zimbabwe Week by noting one of them had come to Washington from Tennessee -- "Where was Martin Luther King Killed?" -- and that the other, Carol Schwartz, was Jewish. "She wouldn't object to it if it were for the Jews," he said.
It's obvious that this sort of rhetoric does the city no good. It does nothing to advance any debate, to arrive at any solution, to do anything, really, other than divide the city along racial and religious lines. This is not to say that there is no such thing as racism, that some cirticism is not racially motivated or that we should forget that men like Marion Barry built their careers as civil rights actibists. They have come by their sensitivity honestly and anyone who watches the District's voting rights amendment go down in flames would have to agree with them that racism is far from a historic artifact.
But it's up to the mayor and other politicians to put people like Shaffer-Corona in his place, not by telling him to shut up, which is not a bad idea, but by setting an example -- by saying, in other words, that the issue of race or religion won't be raised when people differ politically or they get criticized for, say, slow snow removal. Please, Mister Mayor, do us all a favor. The next time it snows -- keep quiet and shovel.