Wearing a blue track suit and green campaign cap, Marion Barry walked slowly into Peter Cho’s busy grocery shop in the heart of Anacostia on Friday afternoon to try to mend relations with a man whom he then called, to his face, “a good Asian.”
District Council member Barry was on his latest damage-control mission after he outraged most of the city (and country) Tuesday by calling for small businesses in his Ward 8 to undergo a kind of ethnic cleansing.
“We’ve got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops. They ought to go. . . . We need African American business people to be able to take their places,” Barry (D) said at the party celebrating his landslide victory in the council primary.
At Cho’s store on Friday, shortly before Barry showed up without notice, Cho told me that he and most other Asian American businesspeople were “very disheartened” by Barry’s remarks.
“It was like a racist comment, because he did specify one group of people,” said Cho, whose family has owned MLK Grocery in Southeast since 1984. Cho, a vice president of the Korean-American Grocers Association, has known Barry for 25 years.
Barry’s visit didn’t satisfy Cho, and the council member had only himself to blame. His insensitivity and arrogance have crippled any chance that he might be a constructive leader on the touchy relations between Asian business owners and their mostly black customers in the eastern wards’ low-income neighborhoods.
“We still have issues to work out,” Cho said.
Barry’s insensitivity was evident, because a man with his experience surely was aware how his crude racial characterization would be received.
“As a person who came through the civil rights era, and was a leader of it, he should know better than to make a statement like that,” said Jacque Patterson, a former managing director of the Federal City Council who lost to Barry in the primary.
“Had that statement been made about African Americans or any other community, we would be up in arms, and he would be trying to lead the fight,” Patterson said.
Barry’s arrogance was evident when he was still pretending at times Friday that he hadn’t necessarily done anything wrong. Even after issuing varying apologies for having offended Asian Americans, Barry was also claiming that political enemies had twisted his words.
“Mr. Barry is like a flip-flop. He says one thing and then turns around and says something different,” Cho said.
That aptly describes Barry’s account of his short, private conversation with Cho. They met in a bulletproof glass enclosure at the front of the store, which Cho installed after he was shot in the hand in 1989 during an attempted armed robbery.
Barry suggested at first that the conversation was about pressing the District government to give Ward 8 more grant money to spruce up stores. When I asked, though, Cho confirmed that they’d discussed Barry’s anti-Asian remarks.
That’s when Barry said his comments didn’t apply to Cho, because in his opinion Cho contributes to the community, unlike other Asian business owners. For instance, for 15 years, Cho has sponsored a back-to-school block party in August with food, music, a moon bounce and pony rides. Hundreds of schoolchildren receive free backpacks filled with school supplies.
Cho also hires blacks from the neighborhood for his stores, unlike some Asian American owners who staff their shops only with family members.
“This is an example of a good Asian,” Barry said. “Even in the black community, we’ve got businessmen who don’t do their share.”
Barry also resisted saying he’d misspoken and suggested he’d been right all along.
“I could have used a better set of words, but the meaning is the same,” Barry said.
Cho actually agrees with Barry about some of the problems. He thinks some local business owners, including Asians, could do more to fix up their properties.
“There are some stores in this part of the neighborhood that need a little bit of elbow grease. Maybe mine, too,” Cho said. The turquoise linoleum in his four-aisle shop is worn. The red brick storefront needs painting.
But Cho stressed that the typical local business doesn’t earn enough to invest in improvements.
“For most, it’s a daily operation to make a small profit. Trying to renovate a store, that’s a challenge,” he said.
Even if he shares some of Barry’s concerns, Cho faulted the council member for lashing out without warning. “Before he criticized Asian business owners, he should have tried to open a dialogue. He hasn’t been active recently” in the community, Cho said.
In light of his performance this past week, Barry could contribute best by closing his mouth and helping the stores find cash for a facelift.