You may or may not have heard of D.C. council member Marion Barry’s racist comments last Tuesday. He targeted the Asian American by criticizing their small businesses and urging them to close their “dirty shops.” This man had just celebrated his third consecutive win in the Democratic primary.
The exact quote goes:
“We’ve got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops,” he said in the course of laying out his vision for the ward. “They ought to go. I’ll just say that right now, you know. But we need African American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.”
These sentiments are reminiscent of those back during the ‘92 riots in Los Angeles, which was prompted by the beating of Rodney King. Tensions sparked even more when a Korean woman named Soon Ja-Doo shot a young black girl named Latasha Harlins, who was trying to steal a bottle of orange juice, and Soon Ja-Doo, though convicted guilty of voluntary manslaughter, got a relatively light sentence of a few hundred dollars and hours of community service. Racial tension spurred and the media gave lots of attention to the black-Asian tension that formed during this time. You might even recall rapper Ice Cube’s song, “Black Korea.” The fact that many liquor stores and other small businesses of the sort in primarily black communities were being bought up and owned by Koreans added to the tension and frustration among both communities.
Certainly, we look back on these incidents and the riots that destroyed many, many businesses and was even responsible for a few deaths. With this, it’s hard to believe that similar sentiments are being brought up again by a council member who has been sweeping up victories as of late. Barry was even brought up during the civil rights movement era, which caused more shock to his rather blatant racial comments.
By late last Thursday, Barry apologized via Twitter that he was “very sorry for offending the Asian American community” and that his comments were “admittedly [a] bad choice of words.” He did, however, stick with the concerns that many of the businesses in Ward 8 were owned by Asians.
By this, he brings back a history of tensions as mentioned with the riots in Los Angeles: his district’s poor neighborhood that largely consists of black residents had and has many Asian-owned eateries and liquor stores. He claims that these very businesses are unclean and hostile, citing the thick, bulletproof plexiglass between the customer and cashiers in many stores. Barry further argues that some of the common take-out stores serve unhealthy, high-calorie foods. Moreover, his argued that the store-owners do not engage with the community. Barry claimed he was blind to race in making this statement: “I don’t care who it is.”
Yet he went back to stating that “90 percent of all small restaurants” were owned by Asians, a figure that’s pretty difficult to claim. He further stated, “We’re spending our money there, and we demand respect. We demand they participate in community affairs. We demand they give jobs to Ward 8 people regardless of their cultural situation. That’s as American as apple pie.”
Barry can make as many nonsensical analogies to what it means to be American, but his comments remain absolutely unacceptable. It simply does not matter who these offensive words were directed towards, but he can’t claim that he was blind to race. Whatever the situation may be in down in D8, Barry did no good in directly pointing out Asians. His ripe age of 76, the decade-old tensions, the high he was feeling during his hoppin’ primary victory party (well-deserved?) nor the actual circumstances of the area are no excuses for his disrespect and ignorance.