Modern racism has evolved with the eruption of D.C. Councilman Marion Barry.
Can one still say overtly racist things about Asian Americans and get away with it?
Sure you can. And Barry’s exhibit A.
As he celebrated yet another landslide primary victory with supporters last week, Barry’s made a few campaign pledges, including one about Asian-owned businesses in his predominantly African American ward.
Said Barry: “We got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops…They ought to go, I’m going to say that right now. But we need African American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.”
Apparently, Barry’s had complaints that few national food operators are willing to come into the ‘hood. What, no Mickey D’s? Instead, Asian Americans of all stripes–Chinese, Korean, and South Asian, mostly immigrants–have turned entrepreneurial to fill the void and serve Barry’s constituents. After all, that’s the American way.
But some in Barry’s district are tired of eating take-out chicken wings and fried rice for the umpteenth time. To me that sounds way better than a steady diet of high fat, high sodium fast food.
Maybe they should try the Broccoli Tofu rice plate?
Complaints about one group’s soul food versus another’s are one thing. But store cleanliness is not about race. If that’s a problem, why couldn’t Barry just call on the health department to sweep through his district? Suggesting the ethnic, rather than literal, cleansing of his neighborhood, running Asians out of town is just an abomination. Didn’t white people say that about blacks in the South about 50 years ago?
Few politicians could afford to be so boldly racist. Can you imagine a politician in San Francisco saying we need to get white businesses out of Clement Street? Or Asian businesses out of the Excelsior? But here’s Barry, former civil rights activist, wielding a majority mindset and targeting a minority in his district–struggling Asian American immigrant business owners.
As a columnist for 14 years at AsianWeek, I often wrote about the slights we Asian Americans endure as we are ignored, left out, taken for granted, and, more often than not, just flat out abused. It was enough to make me go amok–in print–over racist T-shirts from Abercrombie & Fitch to racist images on TV and movies to DJs’ accented taunts.
It seemed like it was all transgressions, all the time. But nothing quite matches the brazen remarks of Barry.
The amazing thing is that Barry, who served three terms as D.C. mayor and a prison term for smoking crack, should have any credibility whatsoever.
But that’s not how it works in D.C.
Despite rebukes from fellow D.C. councilmen, Barry’s gotten by this episode with a weak non-apology on Twitter. Barry tweeted he was “very sorry for offending the Asian American community,” with what was an “admittedly bad choice of words.”
“I admit I could and should have said it differently. But the facts are still very present in our daily lives here,” Barry went on. “We are tired of sub-standard treatment, tired of being kept at arms length distance, tired of the lack of community engagement.”
Subsequent to his tweet, Barry has added insult to insult, characterizing the episode as not particularly challenging, even ranking it in terms of threats to him as a “2,” presumably on a scale of 1 to 10.
You’d think he was auditioning for the lead in “How To Get Away With Racism Without Really Trying.”
So far, an ad hoc group of Asian American community organizations, including APIA Vote, the Asian American Action Fund, the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, and the Council of Korean Americans, have issued a statement condemning Barry.
But a week later, nothing seems to impact Barry. What’s beyond rebuke? A resignation? Forced retirement? No chance.
Barry’s seemingly untouchable in his home district, Ward 8.
What also emerges from this racist episode is the clear divide that exists between established second, third, and fourth generation Asian Americans and new immigrants.
The harsh criticism tends to come from those who remember the civil rights era. What are the new immigrants themselves saying? They’re the ones whose voices aren’t being heard.
“The folks calling to condemn Barry aren’t the shop owners of Ward 8,” said Sapna Pandya, executive director of the group Many Languages One Voice, who wants to take a different approach. She notices that the language and class implications of this story are more profound than race, and she’s concerned about the media coverage.
“If we push back too hard,” she said, mindful of the delicate situation, “we’re going to make life more difficult for shop owners in Ward 8.”
Pandya wants to make sure D.C. enforces its existing law that calls for translation services to allow people to engage with the politicians. She’s hoping to open up a different kind of dialogue given the reality that Barry can’t or won’t be shamed out of his position of power.
But the approach shows how, despite becoming more than five percent of the nation’s population, there’s still a stunning lack of power among Asian Americans in this country.
San Francisco and Hawaii may be the exception. But in the nation’s capital in 2012, a leading politician can talk publicly about Asian Americans like he was a white man talking about blacks in the Jim Crow South, and barely get his wrist slapped. If Barry can get away with this, what’s next?