Despite the spirited rallying by a crowd of several hundred people to protest what they say are unfair attacks on District Mayor Marion Barry, a deep discomfort over the scandal continues to grip this city.
Last week's sentencing of Alphonse G. Hill and unattributed reports that convicted drug dealer Karen K. Johnson had told a grand jury that associates of the mayor tried to silence her with payoff money have left many people with a deep disquiet. Yet, regardless of how blacks feel about Barry, many seem to have a big fear in common. Peculiar to black Washington, the fear is, "Could Washington, D.C., find itself with a white mayor?"
Although it is definitely premature to contemplate Barry's departure -- there have been no indictments in this probe -- it is not too early to take a look at the big fear of many blacks, which existed well before Barry came into office. The big fear is an unconscious terror, understood even when unspoken. It is a fear born of years of political impotence, of an unwillingness in the city's brief home rule history to risk the loss of black political power, and of memories of the struggle that had to be waged nationally for the black political gains that many feel are under attack across the country.
At the heart of the big fear in Washington is the notion that increasing numbers of whites are going to move into the District and drive out blacks. As blacks put it, "They're going to take the city back." Many blacks refer to this as "the plan."
The first step of the plan, according to these blacks, involves destroying all black political power, particularly the office of the mayor. But because I think there may be a kind of irrationality to that fear, just for the psychoanalytic benefit of it, let's deal in a kind of massive therapy session of what would happen if in our wildest -- and unhappiest -- imagination the worst happens and Barry is forced to step aside.
According to the District of Columbia Code, if a mayor is forced to step down, the D.C. Council chairman would become acting mayor for just less than 120 days. Then, a special election would be held to determine who would serve the remainder of the mayor's term. In this case, the mantle would fall to Council Chairman David A. Clarke -- a white politician who was reelected last fall with 105,000 votes, the highest number of votes of any candidate running for a citywide office. Clarke would then presumably be pitted against a black candidate.
But for Clarke to become mayor, the majority of black residents, who make up 70 percent of the city's population, would have to vote for him. Now if the majority of the residents of this city decides it wants Clarke, then that is what the democratic process is all about. But if a good, viable black candidate makes himself known to the electorate, is there any reason to believe that this person would not be given a fair shake by the residents of the District? Of course not.
Barry's reelection last fall revealed a stark pattern of voting along racial lines -- he failed to carry a single precinct in an arc from upper Northwest to Georgetown, Dupont Circle, far Southwest and on to Capitol Hill. But despite that anti-Barry sentiment among white voters, he received 79,142 votes, or 61 percent of the vote, in his victory over Republican Carol Schwartz.
In one sense, the mentality that is at work in the big fear is a reflection of the misguided notion that because Washingtonians voted for Barry, we all share some responsibility for his actions. This in turn leads to the rationalization that Barry must be protected no matter what, and that if Barry falls, it will mark the end of black political power in the District.
But if blacks are willing to lose black political power in that way, and the city falls into the hands of politicians who do not reflect the ethnic balance, it won't be what "they" did to us; it will be what "we" did to ourselves.
Whether "the plan" exists or not is irrelevant; it exists in the minds of many black Washingtonians. But the problem with the big fear is that it stops people from rating politicians on their integrity. Indeed, if the ethics of some of Barry's deputy mayors were less questionable, maybe people would be less anxious.
But whatever happens, D.C. residents need to stop thinking they're impotent and instead need to move to keep getting involved in events. For what is too often forgotten in the heat of the big fear is that the fate of the leadership in the District is never in the hands of one person or a dozen people but always in the hands of all of the people who live here.