THE MAYOR OF WASHINGTON, Marion S. Barry Jr., has called me a racist. He said it on television Saturday night in the course of a discussion of his first year in office with two WDVM reporters, Gordon Peterson and Bruce Johnson. He was asked why he was disappointed with the press. Barry said that by and large he was not. It was me he was disappointed in. I am a racist.
Barry started answering the question by saying that the press pays too little attention to the accomplishments of his administration. He listed some of these, adding that by and large, "the news media has been fair." He then said there are some columnists, "particularly a couple of white columnists, who I think have a tendency to view blacks in a different view than I do, that I don't particularly like."
Peterson then asked Barry what stories he thought were racially motivated. Was it, perhaps, the mortgage story?
"No, I think that was part of it," the mayor said."I think there is one columnist in town . I don't want to get into name calling, who seems to have a personal vendetta, and who seems to approach blacks in a racist manner, but I think that is a minor part of what is going on."
Barry went on to mention some more of his accomplishments and then Johnson went back to the matter of "this columnist . . ."
"We are talking about Dick Cohen," Peterson said.
The mayor said nothing.
So we are talking about Dick Cohen. Fair enough, I have done some of that myself. But we are talking, you will notice, about no specific. Just exactly what the charges against me are or what the proof of this alleged racism might be, is beyond me or the viewers of the television show. For this, Barry is not entirely to blame. Neither Johnson nor Peterson thought of asking Barry what in the world he was talking about.
No matter. I know what he is talking about. He is talking of precisely six columns I have done which were either critical of him or (begging your pardon) poked fun at him. I poked fun at him when he took off for Africa shortly after becoming mayor, all but made promises of aid to developing nations and came back to a city where the summer jobs program for kids was falling apart and where the streets were full of potholes. He didn't like that.
I also wrote tht I was skeptical when he said that he knew nothing of the business dealings of his former wife, Mary Treadwell, and I was critical, too, when he said he supported giving blacks a piece of new developments strictly because they were blacks. That was not the issue at all, I wrote. They were well-connected and being black had precious little to do with it.
And then we come to the matter of his house. He bought one and got a sweetheart mortgage from a savings and loan company. He pretended he got a teensy-weensy bit of a deal. He did not. He finally admitted he got one hell of a sweet deal. You can see how racist all this is.
I have listed these columns so you will know the context of the mayor's charge, not to defend myself. I cannot do that. Once you've been called a racist, the damage has been done. It's one of the great low blows of our time, like being called a communist or asked when you stopped beating your wife.
The issue, though, is not me. What the mayor thinks of me is not important. What is important is him and his reckless use of the world racism. He uses it as almost synonymous with criticism. If you criticize him, you're a racist. It has become that sample.
Not even blacks are immune from this. The mayor told a meeting of business, civic and religious leaders that he rued the day he urged The Washington Post to hire more black reporters. Those hired, he said, turned out to be harder on him than white reporters. He offered a characteristic explanation: race. The black reporters were bending over backwards to prove that they were reporters first, blacks second.
Time and time again the mayor has raised the issue of rasism. When he was crticized for a slow job of snow removal, he blamed racism. When The Washington Post reported that then mayor Walter Washington had frivolously used his official siren to make a fast exit from a Redskins game, Barry said we wouldn't have written the same thing about a white mayor.
It does not matter if he is cynically saying these things or whether he really believes them. The effect is the same. It is a new type of McCarthyism. It stifles debate, silences criticism and, speaking personally, leaves you a bit gun-shy. Barry's talk leaves no room for honest criticism and shows no understanding of the role of the press. We are nobody's cheerleaders. to be otherwise would be patronizing -- racist.
Life has taught Marion Barry that there is such a thing as racism. He has fought it all his life, fought it effectively and well, but now he sees it where it is not. If he wants to know what racism looks like, he ought to consider a man who sees fair criticism as racially motivated, who thinks of himself as being primarily black and only secondarily a public official, who uses race to ward off cricism and to generate support among the voters. He ought to look in the mirror.