Marion Barry's Turn Toward Bigotry

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Mike DeBonis has been chronicling the latest Barry episode, wherein the Mayor of Ward 8 calls for banishment of Asian-American business:

Barry made the comments Tuesday night, at a party celebrating his landslide victory in the Democratic primary race for the D.C. Council seat he's held since 2005. WRC-TV cameras caught the remarks: 

"We've got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops. 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." 

Since then, outrage has mounted... 

"I've spent the last 50 years of my life fighting for justice and equality of all people," he said. "Those five people don't know Marion Barry at all. They know my name; they don't know my record." 
It is indeed true that Barry spent much of his political life fighting for "justice and equality of all people." Barry began his career as an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee--the integrationist John Lewis edition, not the H. Rap Brown "Burn Baby Burn" version. Barry. 

Barry's swipe at Asian-Americans is of a piece with his recent overtures toward homophobia. But  Marion Barry was once a very different politician. Indeed, in the late 70s and early 80s, Barry was arguably one of the most progressive mayors in the country on LGBT issues. To wit:
Mayor Marion Barry's well-publicized support for gay rights was sharply criticized yesterday by several influential city ministers, some of whom said they fear that the major's prominent appearances at gay-sponsored events may encourage homosexuality. 

"His presence it tantamount to giving sanction to it [homosexuality]," said the Rev. William A. Treadwell, paster of Berean Baptist Church 924 Madison Street NW. Treadwell and other clergymen expressed their concerns during a meeting yesterday of Barry and about 40 ministers from various denominations...

The ministers, traditionally considered the equivalent of ward bosses in this predominantly black city, did not support Barry until after his election was virtually assured. They subsequently have been without the influence on city policy and access to social programs that they enjoyed earlier when Walter E. Washington, the son-in-law of a prominent District of Columbia preacher, was mayor...

Barry defended his support for gay rights, according to several persons who attended yesterday's meeting. He said that as major of the city he must represent all of its residents, including those who are homosexuals. In the past, Barry has talked of homosexual rights as a human right similar to the civil rights that blacks fought for in the 1950s and 1960s.

That's from the November 30, 1979 issue of the Washington Post. It's worth noting as recently as 2008, Barry supported gay marriage. 

I don't highlight Barry's more tolerant past to exonerate him, or--by any stretch--make a defense of him. There simply isn't one. My sense is that Barry is either (1.) Trying to get some attention or (2.) Manifesting the unreconstructed id of his long-suffering Ward. 

In 1979, Marion Barry wasn't going to become mayor through demagoguery and black populism. But in 2012, he can surely reign as king of Ward 8 with that mix. It's sad to see. Very George Wallace-like.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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